Ward et al.

Skinner's Walden Two

Reading Questions

Index to Walden Two

And thus expunge
The ought
The should
Truth's to be sought
In Does and Doesn't

B. F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederick Skinner wrote this book in 1945, in the waning months of World War II and in the first flush of his success as a research scientist. As the timeline shows, his earliest contribution (and a real whopper) was The Behavior of Organisms in 1938. He began his career in the glory days of what has been called the behaviorist movement in American psychology.

The first behaviorist manifesto was published by John Watson in 1913 and stridently faulted other psychologies for allowing mentalistic terms to be at the core of their theories. Watson would have none of this, and claimed that Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It should be about only things we can directly observe: the relationship between the environment and the behavior of the organism. Note the broad scope of this claim: we are talking about all organisms now (all animals, not just humans) and the only things we can talk about are objective qualities of the environment and objective descriptions of behavior. Not only was behavior king, but the only domain of any interest was learning.

Skinner's operant conditioning approach to learning theory is in many ways the crowning glory of this movement. If you understand its subtleties you can predict and explain a wide variety of behavior. There are other approaches to learning to which Skinner refers in the book. Classical conditioning is associated with Ian Pavlov and his salivating dogs. The chapter The brain is programmed to form associations in Mynatt & Doherty (chapter 9) gives you a quick intro to this approach. Classical conditioning is only concerned with links made by the simple association of stimulus and response. Skinner's approach is more complex and is drawn from evolutionary principles: the environment, says Skinner, selects behavior after it has been emitted by reinforcing or punishing it.

The story of Walden Two can be found in the short bit of poetry above. But to get the full force of his argument, we might also add:

Happiness is to be found
in Does and Doesn't.

Skinner claims that, if we want to produce a society where everyone is happy (read: gets lots of positive reinforcement), then we ought to concern ourselves with the unflinching and straightforward control of behavior. Skinner likens his approach to a technology of behavior -- a clear tool for the scientist to design a culture that is positively reinforcing. He claims that if only we follow this technology, laying aside foolish notions of freedom and dignity, we will then be on the road to creating a society where people will feel free and feel dignified (though they will know their behavior is controlled).

You will find little this radical in your college career.

Understanding Skinner's really radical claims takes some doing. This is partly because you will have to master a new vocabulary (e.g. stimulus control, negative reinforcement, generalization gradient). But Skinner throws out so many of our basic ideas (like ought, should, freedom, dignity, value, virtue, etc.) that one can get intellectual vertigo. The best advice I can give you (other than the generic advice in the earlier section on exams) is to constantly try to take your standard explanations of behavior and turn them into Skinnerian descriptions of contingencies of reinforcement.

A guide to the argument of the book.

Walden Two is Skinner's early attempt to apply his principles of learning to create a utopian society. This "best of all possible worlds" is constructed on the principle that the question "What is the good life?" is an empirical question. Skinner was an English major in college, and had hoped to be a novelist. If you are looking for a good novel with a compelling plot and subtle character development (or any character development, for that matter) go to the library for another book. This book is more like one of Plato's dialogues. The main characters engage in lots of dialogue to discover the spirit and principles behind the community of Walden Two. Set speaches by main characters expound the points Skinner wants to make. Don't get me wrong, the ideas are challenging and the reading is not painful. There is even some (but not much) dramatic tension.

What is dramatic is the claim Skinner makes for his society. Everyone is happy (regularly positively reinforced). And the logic is difficult to refute: If you view something in the community as not working, then change it. People don't stay at Walden Two because they are forced, but because they want to (are positively reinforced). So, if you are positively reinforced by having them stay, you should change things so that they are positively reinforced. Punishment is never used in Walden Two. Not because the inhabitants are morally opposed to it, but because punishment is unpredictable in its effects, and has unwanted side effects (like classically conditioned avoidance of the punisher).

In the end, you will have to answer the question that confronts Professor Castle: would we better off if we followed a science of behavior or if we "dumped it in the ocean"?

Comments on the Syllabus

The in-class introduction to Skinner's psychology begins with a consideration of the research on aggression and television viewing. Thus I assign chapter 16 (effects of television). Freud and Skinner have radically different ideas about the sources of aggression in people. For Freud, watching vilent TV might serve as a carthartic experience and thus reduce the drive for aggression (siphoning off the built-up pressure). For Skinner, violent television trains people to behave violently, thus increasing aggression. This topic is also interesting because of Skinner's insistence on the importance of psychological research for solving everyday problems, like aggression. Freud's approach helps us to explain aggresion, but does not encourage us to go collect any data about it.

The Design of Things. The cast of characters in tntroduced to each other and to Walden Two. Pay attention to the sheep as a metaphor for life at Walden Two. Also, pay attention to the approach that Frazier has to all aspects of the environment: physical, social, weather, cups and plates, and domestic engineering. Frazier wants "a constantly experimental attitude toward everything..."

I assign chapter 3 (experiments) and the epilogue here. You will find a significant disagreement between our text authors and Skinner on the importance of control groups. It seems clear that Skinner and our text authors mean very different things when they say "experiment." For Skinner, the word is a verb, and describes an attitude more than a procedure. For Mynatt & Doherty, the word is a noun and have a very technical meaning. This disagreement is partly a result of the time difference (about 50 years) but also a point of real disagreement.

I assign the epilogue so you can see how M&D agree substantially with Skinner on the importance of applying psychology.

The Design of Life. In this longest reading on the class, Frazier shows off the community's approach to the design of life: work, play, raising children, family, marriage, and sex. The specifics here certainly challenging to common morality, but for our purposes they are less important than the general principles behind why they are adopted. Remember that Frazier is willing to change anything that will lead to a better community and a better experience for community members.

Chapter 12 (classical conditioning) and 13 (operant conditioning) provide some modern background to reading this 50 year old classic. When Skinner wrote this novel, he had not yet cleared up the terminology for this new area of operant conditioning. We will talk in class about the confusions this generates.

The Good Life. In this section, Frazier gets to expound on what the good life is. He has several criteria: health, minimal unpleasant labor, the opportunity to exercise talents and abilities, intimate and satisfying personal contacts, and rest and relaxation. Make sure to look for the kind of evidence that Frazier produces for these goals. Note the conversation Frazier and Burris have about what a real experiment is.

Chapter 14 (punishment) is a very important one. If you can understand why punishment is a dangerous and unreliable tool in changing behavior, you will have gone a long way to acquiring a psychological frame of mind. Skinner recognized these dangers early on, partly as a result of his experimental work.

Politics and Heroes. In this section, Frazier gets to talk about the governance system of Walden two, and about its relationship to outside governments. In addition, we find out that, even though Frazier is the cheif founder of Walden two, many people in the community do not know him: he is not a hero.

Freedom and Control. In this relatively short section section, we get to see some of the basic philosophical questions asked and answered. Are the inhabitants of Walden Two free? How can an experimentally run culture not be oppressive? Here we hear most explicitly Frazier's objections to punishment. Frazier claim that using positive reinforcement and "skillful planning and techniques" Walden Two can actually "increase the feeling of freedom."

I have also assigned a talk that I gave a few years ago on Free Will and psychology as a science. My main question was "can they co-exist?" But I transform that question into something like "can we still hold people responsible and do a science of psychology?"

Our next class day is a discussion of evolution. This incorporates chapters 4( long term adaptation) and 33 (genetics and individual differences). Skinner modeled his approach to learning (the selection of behavior by the environment) on Darwin's model. He felt learning mechanisms were a long term adaptation that allowed for efficient short term adaptation.

In our critique of Skinner we will look at chapter 15 (behavior isn't infinitely flexible) and chapter 31 (personality measurement). In the first instance, we will find out that Skinner was over-optimistic about how much we could change our behavior. In the second instance, we will learn baout how a scienc of personality has arisin despite Skinner's regular deniciation of looking at "occult influences" on behavior like personality traits.

Some interesting links on B.F. Skinner and Walden Two

The B. F. Skinner Foundation. The foundation handles Skinner's estate and provides some useful information about his life and contributions.

A senior psychology major's report on Walden Two. Some good basic commentary on Walden Two.

Los Horcones. A real Walden Two-style community. The people here do NOT say their community is inspired by Walden Two, but instead, is inspired by the principles of a behavioral science. Here is what Frazier would call an empirical test of the idea of cultural engineering.

The Walden Two Fan Site. Several articles on Walden Two and a good synopsis os the book and Skinner's principles. This site is maintained by members of a community estbalished in the ealry 1970s on the basis of Walden Two. The community has now moved away from those principles (and from behaviorism) in its search for a successful model of living.

Reconsidering Walden Two. A useful essay that critiques governmental structures based on Walden Two.