Long before there were grab and go lunches and weekly pub trivia nights, slot machines and pianos filled the basement of Memorial Hall. The lucky gamblers and musicians were not students or faculty, but pigeons.
Established in 1948, the Harvard Pigeon Lab was one of the many Psychological Laboratories occupying the space below Sanders Theater. It was led by a newly tenured professor who had spent the last few years trying to create a pigeon-guided missile program for the US military to use during World War II. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, known to the academic world as B.F. Skinner, would continue to experiment on pigeons, but his years at Harvard proved to be as dynamic and eclectic as his contributions to the fields of psychology and education.
Skinner’s connection to Harvard began in 1928 when he enrolled in the graduate program in psychology within what was then the Department of Philosophy and Psychology. He split most of his time between Emerson Hall, where the department was located, and his house three blocks from the Yard on Harvard Street.
The path that brought Skinner to psychology was an unusual one. Jerome Kagan, Professor Emeritus of Psychology, recalled a lunch date with Skinner, in which the eminent psychologist noted, “when he was an undergraduate, he decided to be a writer because his main goal was to change the world. He had very high ambitions. He wanted to have an effect on the world and decided that writing was the best way to do it.”
Everything changed for Skinner in his second half of college when, according to Kagan, “he read [John] Watson, who is the original behaviorist, and that persuaded him that if you want to change the world, becoming a psychologist was probably more effective.”
Graduate school at Harvard for Skinner was an experience almost completely confined to academics. He would later write in his autobiography, “The Shaping of a Behaviorist,” that “Harvard University takes little or no interest in the private lives of its graduate students,” explaining that all matters of social and residential life were not of concern to the University. He would also reflect on the fact that graduate school pushed him harder than anything before, consuming nearly all of his daytime hours.
“At Harvard I entered upon the first strict regimen of my life,” he wrote. “I would rise at six, study until breakfast, go to classes, laboratories, and libraries with no more than fifteen minutes unscheduled during the day, study until exactly nine o’clock at night, and go to bed. I saw no movies or plays, seldom went to concerts. I had scarcely any dates, and read only psychology and physiology.”
Skinner soon became interested in behaviorism, a school of psychology more concerned with behaviors themselves than the unseen mental processes behind them. Kagan explained that behaviorism is rooted in the belief that in order to teach some behavior to an organism, “all we have to do is control the rewards, the desirable things that the animal or human wants, and punish the behaviors that we don’t want. There’s no mind, there are no thoughts, everything is behavior.” Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology, described behaviorism as “not a theory of psychology,” but instead, “really a meta-theory or a philosophy of psychology.”
While still a graduate student, Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, in which animals are taught certain behaviors by rewarding or punishing the animal’s actions. Later known as the Skinner Box, the apparatus was instrumental in pursuing the study of operant conditioning, an alternative to the more widely studied classical conditioning à la Pavlov’s dog.
Operant conditioning opened the door to a world of new theories and possibilities regarding control and learning. “What Skinner did was say, ‘Well, if we really want to control behavior, we’ve got to control habits that are not innately biological,’” notes Kagan. “If you want to control what people do–control their aggression, control their work habits, control their study habits–that’s all operant conditioning.”
Skinner’s years as a graduate student were spent surrounded by the giants of a field emerging as its own distinct science. He studied under professors like Henry Murray—the developer of a personality psychology called personology—and took classes alongside students like Fred Keller, who would become a renowned champion of scientific education reform. But despite contact with pioneering members of the field, Skinner largely took his own approach.
After passing his preliminary exams, Skinner all but ignored by-the-book psychology. He noted in his autobiography that upon reading through a copy of the American Journal of Psychology, he concluded “there must be a better way to find out what was going on in the field.”
“I never learned how to read the ‘literature’ in psychology, and the literature remained largely unread by me,” he went on to write. Even in his research ventures, he recalled working “entirely without supervision” and that “some kind of flimsy report” would usually suffice.
Nevertheless, Skinner would later reflect that in his late graduate years, “that [he] was doing exactly as [he] pleased.” He received his Ph.D. in 1931 and remained at Harvard to do research until 1936. After over a decade of teaching at colleges in the Midwest, he came back to Cambridge in 1948 when Harvard offered him a tenured professorship. He became the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1958, a position he maintained until his retirement in 1974.
In his faculty position at Harvard, Skinner was able to continue his research into animal behavior as well as expand to other fields, both in and out of psychology. The Pigeon Lab, set up in Skinner’s first year as a professor, used birds to study behavioral principles that could be applied to humans. A Crimson article from 1949 observed Skinner in his element. “Skinner places his pigeons in a small closed box with a button in one wall,” the article reports. “The birds must peck at this button at least once every five minutes to be paid off with food. The eager but ignorant pigeon, however, not knowing he will get the same reward with less exertion, will hammer away rapidly for great lengths of time to get his dinner.” Skinner saw the experiment as providing valuable insight to the work habits and monetary incentives of human beings.
Working out of his office at the south end of Memorial Hall’s basement, Skinner put forth theories on topics ranging from the superstitious tendencies of rodents to the synthesis of internal emotions and external behaviors—a field of his own that became known as radical behaviorism.
Memorial Hall was a beloved site for experimentation. Skinner and his colleagues had significant freedom in modifying the space because administrators had little concern for the building’s underground level. When William James Hall was built as a new home for the Department of Psychology, Pinker said that Skinner and others “had to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the basement of Memorial Hall.” Scientists, Pinker notes, “love space that you can modify yourself indefinitely.”
Nonetheless, the Department managed to adapt to the move. “The 7th Floor of William James Hall was [Skinner’s] empire,” said Pinker. “When the elevator doors opened there were two bumper stickers that you could see. One of them said ‘Think Behavior,’ and the other one said ‘God is a VI,’ which is a very nerdy in-joke, VI being a variable interval schedule of reinforcement.”
By the time Skinner retired, behaviorism began to see a decline in popularity. A shift towards cognitive elements of psychology was already underway. Kagan describes the move towards study of the brain as occurring because of both technical advances that made it easier to do cognitive imaging and the desire of psychologists to examine people’s inner emotions.
“Humans think. Humans feel. Humans feel guilty if they have a bigoted thought. Operant conditioning can’t explain that,” he says.
Skinner also explored non-psychological fields, contributing to linguistics and philosophy through books like “Verbal Behavior” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity”. One of the fields outside of psychology that was influenced by Skinner’s work is educational theory. He predicted that technology would play an increasingly greater role in the classroom, theorizing that “audio-visual aids” would come to supplement, and maybe even replace, lectures and textbooks. He developed pedagogical methods based on his conditioning theories.
Skinner’s legacy at Harvard and more broadly in his discipline remains ambiguous. Many of his theories have suffered extensive criticism and even been eclipsed by modern methods. His thoughts on education and philosophy were unique but often controversial. In any case, he was arguably one of the most famous psychologists of his time, with an unmatched drive to leave a mark in some way.
“There are two kinds of scientists,” says Kagan. “I call one kind hunters. Hunters win prizes. Hunters want a victory, they want to establish a fact that’s reliable, unambiguous, replicable…They don’t particularly care what the problem is.” He goes on, “then there are the birdwatchers. I’m a birdwatcher. Birdwatchers fall in love with a particular domain.”
This dichotomy represents, according to Kagan, “the difference between a passion about a domain and a passion to make an important discovery about anything.”
“Skinner,” he concludes, “was a hunter.”