Was Skinner a Sociopath?

skinnerboxI was browsing the blogosphere when I came across the article, The Last Behaviorist: Skinner was an evil sociopath. I wish Skinner had been the last Behaviorist. Unfortunately, Behaviorism is alive and well. Most Behaviorists don’t communicate as entertainingly and have as much class as Skinner. He was very good at stirring up the emotions of his readers and provoking them (us?) into defensive stances. The article seems more about his ideas than his personality. He may be right or wrong. Any and all ideas can be created or formulated by a psychopath or non-psychopath. Mike, the author of the above captioned article, was critiquing another article, Why B.F.Skinner May Have Been the Most Dangerous Psychologist Ever by George Dvorsky. Actually, I consider all ideas dangerous. That’s their value, after all. By denying the existence of free will, Skinner threatens many people. His book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, is a challenge to our notion of civil liberties and democracy. Coming across these articles, I recalled my own responses to the challenge his ideas presented to me in my reading of Walden Two, his novel which presented the same ideas as in Beyond Freedom and Dignity but in more readable layman’s terms. Ever the writer about ideas, I produced the following essay:

Skinner’s Scientific Utopia: The Paradox of Freedom

utopiaIs it possible for psychologists to ever understand the human condition well enough to create a utopia by “engineering” human behavior? This is the challenge thrown out by behavioral psychologist, B.F. Skinner in his novel, Walden Two (1948). Well written and entertaining, Walden Two is directed to the layman rather than to the professional psychologist. It concerns a fictitious intentional community of 1,000 started by one Frazier (no first name or title ever mentioned) who applies the tools of behavioral modification to make of Walden Two the best of all possible worlds.

labratsSkinner’s technique as a propagandist is to show us Walden Two through the eyes of various outsiders who possess varying degrees of skepticism and enthusiasm for the community. The reader can identify with one or another of these visitors depending on his own inclinations. Skinner/Frazier is provocative in his claims, deliberately so, in my opinion, as another technique in breaking down resistance. The more we resist an idea, the more power it draws from our very resistance. He begins with teasers, ideas which have interest and merit on their own but which are fairly trivial and extrinsic to his central thesis. The reader and the skeptical visitors sense he is trying to soften them up and stiffen their backs all the more. A philosophy professor named Castle is the main bearer of resistance. Skinner looks down upon philosophy as a form of navel gazing and Castle is made an easy target. More serious reservations come from the narrator, a psychology professor named Burris. However, Burris also serves as a voice for Skinner and much conversation between him and Frazier is like an internal dialogue within Skinner, himself. The party is completed by two young men and their girlfriends. The guys and one of the girls are the enthusiasts of the group while the other girl resists by avoidance. She never engages any of Frazier’s ideas and remains untouched by them throughout the visit.

Why do we have such a strong tendency to resist the concept of behavioral engineering? Skinner devoted another book, this time in essay form, which grapples with the issue. Its title, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, pretty eloquently explains the reason for such resistance. Do we really have free will? Do we even have a soul? Are we mere mechanistic beings of such finite dimensions that the entire workings can be completely understood and programmed by another human, if highly intelligent, being? Most people’s tendency would be to revolt against such a notion. To intensify our revulsion, Frazier comes across with a smugness and egotism that must be calculated to activate our most atavistic possible response.

ratFor a man advocating a program with a formidable name like “behavioral engineering,” Skinner’s utopia promotes a great deal of freedom. There is no money and everyone consumes the goods of the society as he needs. The law of supply and demand is based on labor credits. Everyone is expected to contribute 4 labor credits a day. The ratio of time employed to kind of work depends on the desirability of the kind of work. In other words, work that is really unpleasant which nobody really likes doing, would have a high labor value, so you would do it for a shorter time to get your labor credit. This makes the job more desirable. What you lose in pleasure of work, you gain in leisure. Enjoyable work has a lower labor value so you spend more time at it but it is still alright because it is pleasant. Either way, everyone is about equally contented. And residents choose their work (assuming it’s something they can do of course) so the people who figure out the value of a credit can adjust it by the number of people who volunteer for each task. If fewer people volunteer for something, they give it a higher labor value until more start volunteering. Thus, the economy combines elements of capitalism (supply and demand) with collectivism (everything is owned and consumed in common and used for the common good).

behavioristeduThe educational system is also based on freedom and self-motivation. There are no regimented classrooms or threats of bad grades. Motivation to learn is solely the curiosity of the students. They are taught the methodology of learning and set loose. Behavior mod involves conditioning the children to persevere by introducing progressively greater obstacles that can be overcome. A strategy that achieved desired results every time, will now be made to only work every other time. Then, every third and so on. He may have gone overboard with this and created too much perseverance in them, encouraging them to use tactics that don’t work over and over. If something doesn’t produce the right results for the first 9 times it is tried, is it likely to work the 10th time (unless it is set up that way on purpose)?

There is no democracy, no political parties and no voting. Society is run by behavioral engineers. But actually a kind of democracy really operates. The goal of the society is the happiness of all. The more successful the planners, the more people do what they are intended to do, living productive and contented lives. When things don’t work right, it is because people are “voting” against a certain social arrangement by not cooperating. Nobody’s freedom is really interfered with and his voluntary participation is the only thing that enables the society to run smoothly. It is all based on “positive reinforcement” rather than punishment or “negative reinforcement.” “Every member has a direct channel through which he may protest to the Managers or even the Planners. And these protests are taken as seriously as the pilot of an airplane takes a sputtering engine. We don’t need laws and a police force to compel a pilot to pay attention to a defective engine. Nor do we need laws to compel our Dairy Manager to pay attention to an epidemic among his cows. Similarly, our Behavioral and Cultural Managers need not be compelled to consider grievances. A grievance is a wheel to be oiled, or a broken pipe line to be repaired.” I wonder, however, if that is really enough of a check against possible corruption on the part of the leaders.

dystopiaA more obvious weakness of behavior engineering as a panacea is manifested in a discussion of how to create a “golden age.” Smug as always, Frazier claims to know what “conditions” are necessary to stimulate a renaissance in great culture. But his conditions strike me as evidence that Skinner is ignorant of crucial portions of the human psyche. The first thing he mentions is leisure obtained by means of patronage. Of course, it helps to have time to devote to one’s creative urges. But it doesn’t seem crucial. We enjoy more leisure as a whole today than in most periods. But we tend to fill that leisure time with trivial entertainment such as TV. The more time we have, the more distractions we clutter our lives with. I think an artist must have a certain amount of solitude, even, perhaps, loneliness in order to develop the kind of depth needed to create a new and crucial work of art.

I find it interesting that the examples of culture displayed in Walden Two are all from our classical tradition. They are creations of past generations. Real culture is living culture. Playing old masterpieces is the work of a museum curator. The man who rejects the study of history is culturally living in the past. Of course, some of the classics we now revere were considered rebellious if not outright revolutionary at the time. Such creation would seriously clash with a society that is already “perfect” and must remain stagnant. That is probably the weakness of all utopias.

roseviolinFrazier goes on to argue, “When artists and composers aren’t patronized, they generally get a modicum of leisure by becoming irresponsible. Hence their reputation with the public.” He doesn’t mention examples but one that seems to fit would be Richard Wagner who had a reputation for irresponsibility due to his habit of accumulating debts. Of course, Wagner was, indeed, suffering from a lack of patronage. So far, Skinner is right. But Wagner was just as productive during this earlier period of his life as he was later on when under the generous patronage of King Ludwig III. True, he wrote his most mature work at this latter period but only because he was in the mature time of his life. There is no evidence that his work improved under Ludwig or that it suffered before him. Not that the patronage wasn’t a good thing. Artists deserve support. But Skinner has not managed to support his contention that making support more available is really going to make a difference to the culture.

Frazier also mentions an appreciative audience as a factor. But many works of great art take years to complete. The artist must be borne up by more than an appreciative audience that he may or may not find once the work is ready for his public. Of course, if a composer, Richard Wagner, for example, knows that there is a public for a certain kind of art, he could take encouragement from this knowledge. But Wagner expanded on his chosen medium, Opera, to such an extent that he created works which had been hitherto unknown and so he had no assurance of ever being accepted.

I suggest that inspiration from other works of creative art is more important than anticipation of an appreciative audience. Wagner was exposed to Carl Maria von Weber, for example, who exerted an early influence on the direction of Wagner’s own creativity. Belonging to a culture where creation is already taking place seems to enable more people to move in that direction.

Frazier also contends that “[t]he career (of an artist) must be economically sound and socially acceptable.” But how respectable was the theater in Shakespeare’s time? True artists are not deterred by lack of support, be it financial or social. They create for themselves, having something they need to bring to life and the will to achieve it, if they have to walk on bodies to do so.

Another weakness is Skinner’s arrogant dismissal of the field of ethics, claiming that values are already obvious to everyone, beyond the possibility of dispute:

centipede“Of course, I know nothing about your course in ethics,” Frazier said, “but the philosopher in search of a rational basis for deciding what is good has always reminded me of the centipede trying to decide how to walk. Simply go ahead and walk! We all know what’s good, until we stop to think about it. For example, is there any doubt that health is better than sickness?”

“There might be a time when a man would choose ill-health or death, even,” said Castle. “And we might applaud his decision.”

“Yes, but you’re moving the wrong foot. Try the one on the opposite side.” This was not playing fair, and Castle obviously resented it. He had made a friendly gesture and Frazier was taking advantage of it. “Other things being equal, we choose health,” Frazier continued. “The technical problem is simple enough. Perhaps we can find time tomorrow to visit our medical building.

values“Secondly, can anyone doubt that an absolute minimum of unpleasant labor is part of the Good Life?” Frazier turned again to Castle, but he was greeted with a sullen silence.

“That’s the millionaire’s idea, anyway,” I said.

“I mean the minimum which is possible without imposing on anyone. We must always think of the whole group…”

nojustificationBut even he admits, “I can’t give you a rational justification for it. I can’t reduce it to any principle of the great good. This is the Good Life. We know it. It’s a fact, not a theory.” In Skinner’s terms, the “Good Life” is one in which people’s motivations are understood and gratified. But how well does he understand out motives or motivation, itself, for that matter? People’s motives (based on their values) have varied a great deal more than the above excerpt acknowledges. Frazier mentions health and leisure as “good,” hardly doing justice to the complex cacophony of choices our species is known to make. No doubt, he believes behaviorism can explain it but he has not demonstrated such ability. Certainly Frazier works at shaping the motives of his subjects. But are they not also shaping his behavior? If he does, in fact, govern without compulsion, he cannot force his values on the population. He can only work with what they already value. Is this not, in fact, a form of symbiosis?

powerOn P. 255, Frazier asks “What would you do if you found yourself in possession of an effective science of behavior? Suppose you suddenly found it possible to control the behavior of men as you wished?” But Frazier’s “control” is hardly what is usually implied by that word, which would be power-over, power wielded over people against their will. Frazier’s only “power” comes from his ability to organize people in a way that enables them to be happy and to get what they want. It is power-with. Skinner must have his reasons for putting his ideas in such threatening terms, almost as if he delighted in pushing our buttons. In his own language, calling his program, “behavioral engineering,” is bad behavioral engineering. He used a term most calculated to generate resistance. It seems he wants to win people over in spite of themselves. It smacks of ego aggrandizement (which Frazier admits is one of his motives).

puppetsHe intensifies the provocative effect of his claim to be able to control people with his “mysterious” science of “behavioral engineering” by saying, “If man is free, then a technology of behavior is impossible.” But his “technology of behavior” is not opposed to freedom. It is based on it. “It’s a little late to be proving that a behavior technology is well advanced,” he goes on. “How can you deny it? Many of its methods and techniques are really as old as the hills. Look at the frightful misuse in the hands of the Nazis!” The Nazis used techniques of manipulation for power-over. Their ability to manipulate did not abolish free-will, however. We are always free to refuse to be manipulated. Most manipulation is based on the knowledge on bargainingthe part of the manipulator (consciously or otherwise) of secret guilt, inadequacies and resentments on our part (which is usually unconscious). Manipulation is blackmail. The antidote to manipulation is the same as the antidote to blackmail: to tell the truth. The victim of most forms of manipulation is not as much afraid of the blackmailer telling the world as he is of becoming aware of his own secrets, carefully hidden from himself. A self-aware human being is enured to manipulation. It always costs us to face our inner demons and that is the true cost of freedom. Other forms of power-over are outright deception and physical domination in the form of guns or muscle. These techniques are outside the province of psychology and hence our discussion. It is noteworthy, however, that, without these additional techniques, the Nazis couldn’t have reigned.

ParentchildHe continues with more benign examples than the Nazis. “What about education? Or religion? Or practical politics? Or advertising and salesmanship? … My question is, have you the courage to take up and wield the science of behavior for the good of mankind?” By his examples, he shows that what he means by “behavior technology,” is in the hands, not only of educators, religious leaders, advertisers and salesmen. They are in our own hands at well! We use these “techniques” on each other every day. A child can do it, and does. What else is he doing when he acts on his best behavior in hope of going to the circus as a reward? What else are his parents doing by doling out rewards for such good behavior? Most manipulation is mutual.

Hopefully, by utilizing techniques based on honesty and cooperation rather than of manipulation, Skinner/Frazier can build a society based on honesty and cooperation among it’s members. Such a society would be one of power-with at its best.

While Skinner has offered some very compelling ideas on the reorganization of a free society, involving new applications of the law of supply and demand as well as democracy, his application of behaviorism in terms of training are less original, impressive or far-reaching. The gradual introduction of aversive stimulation is an old behavioral technique. It is also a technique we all know and practice. Children use this method every time they get into a cold lake gradually instead of all at once. He has not demonstrated possession of anything powerful enough to make us believe his utopia could actually be created in real life.

Less predictably, Skinner then goes on to deny the scientific method, itself, the very thing his utopia is supposed based on.

“You use the word ‘experiment’ a great deal,” I said, “but do you really experiment at all? Isn’t one feature of good scientific practice missing from all the cases you have described?”

“You mean the ‘control,'” said Frazier.

switchFrazier says, “to go to all the trouble of running controls would be to make a fetish of scientific method.” The reason it isn’t necessary to go “to go to [all that] trouble” is “…the relation between cause and effect is obvious. The happiness and equanimity of our people are obviously related to the self-control they have acquired.” So Frazier, the “experimental scientist” now abandons experiment, itself, and presents himself as a channeler of revealed truth, received from the Great God Obvious. Burris’ “head was spinning” as he wondered “how Frazier had been so successful.” The answer to that question, of course, is also “obvious.” It’s easy to be successful in a fictitious “experiment” if the author so decrees.

historyAs the visit draws to a conclusion, Frazier reveals yet another radical idea. He considers history bunk and does not encourage its study at Walden Two. “I don’t care how well historical facts can be known from afar. Is it important to know them at all? I submit that history never even comes close to repeating itself. Even if we had reliable information about the past, we couldn’t find a case similar enough to justify inferences about the present or immediate future. We can make no real use of history as a current guide.” He offers a lot of pertinent criticism of history and it’s relevance, including the unreliability of its information, its skewed perspectives, etc. But, even with all of History’s drawbacks, eliminating history as a study would cause an even greater distortion of our understanding. Why study history? Er … it exists, doesn’t it? We have a past. Would he let young people grow up in Walden Two thinking it had always existed, thinking, perhaps, that it had sprung up full-blown from the brow of Zeus? It strikes me as dangerous to accept such massive ignorance. To remain ignorant, is to believe a lie.

Skinner’s Frazier has boundless faith in his ideas. He no longer needs to know history. He is assured that his planners and managers will never become corrupted. (If they did, it would be difficult to know it without a knowledge of what Walden Two had been like before the corruption started.) His rigorous program turns out to be curiously lacking in substance. Skinner’s ideas are provocative and thought provoking. But the problems are far to serious to allow the quick dismissal Frazier would give them. In short, I am not ready to sign on the dotted line.

twinoaksAddendum
Some people have actually formed a community based on Walden Two. But Twin Oaks abandoned the Walden Two model 20 years ago.


In retrospect, I dislike Behaviorism for representing a retreat from bolder students of the human psyche represented in other schools of psychology. The Behaviorist has given up on trying to understand our inner-subjective selves. He has retreated to the safer and more “objective” study of mere behavior.  Sam Vaknin once wrote that psychologists have to decide whether they are scientists or philosophers. Skinner, advocate of the most restrictive schools of psychology, was very much a philosopher — a metaphysician.  He looked deeply into the implications of his ideas and practice. But most psychologists think they are scientists. As such, Behaviorists are so dull, Skinner might as well have been the “last Behaviorist.”


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