Skinner’s Stimulus

November 01, 1990 7 min read

And yet, Skinner spent his life turning tradition on its pointy little head. One of his most important views is that we waste time and energy trying to solve complicated social problems by trying to dissect individual motives and emotions. That a young man might spend his days and nights selling crack cocaine on a street corner because he “felt’’ alienated was, to Skinner, quite beside the point. Skinner believed that people take their cues from, and are shaped by, their environment. Alter the environment, and you alter the behavior. Feelings be damned.

Skinner also took a lonely and risky position when he wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971. He argued passionately that, for the sake of survival, we must set aside our individualistic ideals, which, he said, would ultimately encourage overpopulation, aggravate pollution, and drain vital resources. The answer, he said, lies in a technology of behavior--that is, he once explained, “changing the environment in such a way as to reinforce the kind of behavior that benefits everyone.’' Of course, that kind of behavior would have to be controlled by someone, somewhere--and for many of his critics, that was the sticking point.

Still, Skinner maintained that we are all controlled. What is the average school building, with all its bells, its grading system, and the everpresent threat of punishment, but a cinder-block Skinner box?

Because Skinner’s ideas and ideals were so radical, so antithetical to the notions of free will and self-determination held dear by Western society, it’s possible that he was misunderstood. (Then again, maybe he was understood only too well.) But now, with Skinner’s death, Epstein believes the world at last may be ready to understand. He spoke with us by telephone from his home in Cambridge, Mass., a few weeks after Skinner’s death.

Teacher: B.F. Skinner’s most controversial and enduring legacy seems to be his view that society might solve its problems through a technology of behavior. Why do you suppose that concept has been so hotly debated?

Epstein: It’s because of the context in which he made the assertion. If he had said, “Behavior is worth studying. We’ve learned a lot about it, and applied what we know with great success. Let’s keep doing that,’' I can’t imagine that anyone would have disagreed with him. But he couched the assertion in the dogmas of early behaviorism, and that’s the problem. The dogma was primarily that of J.B. Watson, whose writing inspired Fred to enter psychology. He made reasonable assertions, but he did so in the context of an “ism,’' a belief system, which one might consider “baggage.’' But I think it most important that people understand what he said, without the baggage. It truly may be the key to our survival. He believed that, and I believe that.

The assertion, really, is sound and reasonable. It has three components that are ugly to Americans, and to most people in the Western world. The components are mind, feeling, and free will. Fred was a strong advocate of the view that “mind’’ is a useless and, in fact, harmful concept. He advocated the view that feelings are not important--that is, it’s not important that we analyze or talk about feelings. And he believed that free will is an illusion. To me, at this point, it is obvious that there is no one more devoted to Skinner, and who has a better mastery of his writings, than I. But it is obvious to me that these three controversial positions are utterly irrelevant to the basic assertion, namely, that a technology of behavior can be very helpful to society in dealing with its ills. What on Earth do mind or feelings or free will have to do with that? We need to acknowledge the message that behavior is important.

Teacher: Doesn’t the biggest fear concern the concept of control? Might we have to entrust our security and our future to an all-seeing Frazier, Skinner’s protagonist in Walden Two?

Epstein: The way that usually appears is to say that Skinner advocated control. But he believed that behavior is always controlled, and it’s hard to deny that. Given that we already know a lot about behavior and control, maybe we could improve the nature of control so that we are happier--he would have been the first to use that word--more productive, and more creative.

If you look at his life, he never used behavioral technology to do anything to anybody. But he sure as heck used every bit of the technology on himself, and to great effect. Skinner was a microcosmic Walden Two. He was the most creative, most productive, happiest person I’ve ever known. That, and the best self-manager in the world. He took all his principles, tentative and emerging, and applied them to every aspect of his life.

Fred used to say that it’s not enough for you to “behave’’ every day. You need to step back and take a look at the variables that determine your behavior. He did that. Here’s a silly example. Many people are aware that he used to write in the early morning hours. At one point, he found that he was fidgeting a lot. He couldn’t sit still anymore, and he suspected it might be his seat cushion. So he slit the seat cushion open and pulled out the stuffing, and put in foam to shape the cushion to precisely fit his derriere. And it worked--he stopped fidgeting. The point is, he tackled every aspect of his life this way. He had control over his own life, and there’s a message in that for all of us. That is, there’s a powerful technology out there which is, in fact, hard to use on other people, but perfect for selfmanagement. We have the greatest control over our own environment, and the contingencies that govern our lives.

Teacher: Did Skinner flat-out believe that feelings didn’t exist, or that they simply weren’t useful?

Epstein: Well, first, there’s the utility issue. Many times, in his writings, he said feelings just aren’t useful. If you focus just on the so-called cognitive phenomena, then you look less at the variables that control behavior.

However, Fred was also a true believer; he wasn’t just a scientist. And he really believed that feelings were not important. He believed that “mind’’ was a bad concept. He was irritated by the notion of free will. It didn’t fit in with determinism, with behaviorism, which was, for him, a religion.

Teacher: Skinner’s views were often described as utopian. Did he really believe in utopia?

Epstein: I don’t agree with the usual characterization. I once asked him why he wasn’t going out there and founding a Walden Two or even a Walden Three, and he replied, “After all, one has to design one’s own life, doesn’t one?’' That bothered me at the time. It seemed like such a cop-out. But it’s something we really need to think about in relation to Skinner. He didn’t really put himself on the line. When it comes down to it, he was a very private man. He wrote about utopia, but it’s clear that he would never have gone beyond that.

His students, over the years, have tried radical experiments. But I think his utopian message has been completely misunderstood. I don’t think for a moment that he intended for anyone to set up a Walden Two. He was always friendly to the communities modeled after Walden Two. They’re nice folks. My sister lived in one. But when it comes right down to it, these folks misunderstood him. The message of Walden Two was not to establish another Walden Two. It was to experiment in the way you run communities. You see a snapshot of Walden Two in the book, when the community is 10 years old. Presumably, it would have looked different 10 years later, or if there were different people, a different landscape, or different resources. The point was, to use behavioral technology in an experimental mode on an ongoing basis.

Fred used to say that if you were going to build a bridge, 5 percent of the expertise came from science, and the other 95 percent came from your knowledge of the terrain. We need to inspire people to get out there and map new terrain, and find ways to intervene to help people work together better, to solve problems that have behavioral components. And what problems don’t have a behavioral component?

Teacher: A good deal of what we know about the science of behaviorism we have learned from Skinner. Can we continue to learn from him? What will you remember?

Epstein: No physicist learns physics from Newton. We should not make the mistake of learning the behavioral sciences from Skinner. Most of his work was done in the late 1920s and 1930s. And the ‘40s and ‘50s, to some extent. Since then, the science has changed a lot. I don’t think we can learn that science from Fred. So that just leaves Skinner, the man, who was remarkable by any standards.

Jeff Meade

A version of this article appeared in the November 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Skinner’s Stimulus