Friday, May 4, 2018
B.F. Skinner, Ph.D.
Dr. Skinner had just finished his lecture as the Chair of the Psychology Department at Indian University. He liked to lecture from time to time, especially to the best students in his care. It was almost a year since he came to Bloomington, and it was starting to wear on him. He missed Harvard terribly and its proximity to the Appalachians. He needed some kind of change in elevation, large trees that turned gorgeous colors in the fall, and that fresh Green color in the spring. Bloomington was not blooming at this time of year and the colors on the trees had faded fast. It was time for another grey winter with not much to look forward to.
So, he has started to write a book about the future unofficially named Walden Two. The book was a kind of play on Thoreau's Walden Pond. While Thoreau expounded on the virtues of self-reliance, he theorized that the real virtue of self-reliance lay in a community where the free will of the individual is weak when compared to how environmental conditions shape behavior. He was very leery about writing in today’s academic climate about such things no matter how much he believed in them. His observations and remarks could easily be taken for communist leanings that he did not possess to any degree, certainly not Stalin’s version that he had just begun to study.
Also, he was becoming aware of just how dangerous this new war was. He had heard of tales of rockets and jet fighters, and, of course, the atomic bomb. He hoped no one would ever place an atomic bomb in a V2-like rocket. Such a device would lead to total annihilation of the human race if his theories were correct, and if that did occur, he fervently wished to be wrong.
Skinner’s fertile mind had taken him far a field in his career. He was still working with his favorite test subjects and had used some of the principles of his work with them for his work with children. It all started in 1944 with his daughter. He noticed that his wife was spending too much time caring for the baby’s physical needs. He wanted to see if he could make her life easier as well as make a safer crib for his daughter.
So, he invented what resembled a hospital incubator. He was working at the University of Minnesota at the time. He put in a heater and other additions to a crib. These experimental features allowed his daughter to sleep in total comfort without the need of layers and layers of blankets. The trouble started when a writer for the Ladies Home Journal did an article on the crib and titled it “Baby in a Box.” During the interview, the photographer noticed that the baby had woken up and was looking at the assembled group. He took her picture. She had just woken up and was using the glass to get her balance. The photo made it look like she was trying to get out.[i]
Well, the crap hit the fan even though he and his wife explained that the special crib was just for sleeping. The fact that he had invented a “lever box” for rats and pigeons to test their behavior just made the situation worse.
The lever box was used to see if an animals’ behavior would alter by giving them rewards for doing the behavior you wanted to them to do. He didn’t go into the punishment side of behaviorism, as some of his colleagues had. He was all about rewards. When a test subject did the optimal behavior or even took a step in the right direction, it was rewarded with a piece of grain, some seeds, etc. He had used his theories to teach pigeons to play ping pong and…his mind wandered briefly to another use. But, he quickly turned away from thinking about what he considered a short-sighted failure of imagination by the people in charge. He never thought about that project for long, even though it lasted for a good year.
Time to move on. He was used to being misunderstood by people who…well, thought differently than he. Not better or worse, just different.