Interview with author of Beyond the Box

beyond the boxA new book on B. F. Skinner and his influence on American life will be released later this month by the University of Toronto Press. The book, Beyond the Box: B. F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s, is authored by Alexandra Rutherford.

The following is from the book’s dust jacket:

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) is one of the most famous and influential figures in twentieth century psychology. A best-selling author, inventor, and social commentator, Skinner was both a renowned scientist and a public intellectual known for his controversial theories of human behavior. Beyond the Box is the first full-length study of the ways in which Skinner’s ideas left the laboratory to become part of the post-war public’s everyday lives, and chronicles both the enthusiasm and caution with which this process was received.

Using selected case studies, Alexandra Rutherford provides a fascinating account of Skinner and his acolytes’ attempts to weave their technology of human behavior into the politically turbulent fabric of 1950s-70s American life. To detail their innovative methods, Rutherford uses extensive archival materials and interviews to study the Skinnerians’ creation of human behavior laboratories, management programs for juvenile delinquents, psychiatric wards, and prisons, as well as their influence on the self-help industry with popular books on how to quit smoking, lose weight, and be more assertive.

A remarkable look at a post-war scientific and technological revolution, Beyond the Box is a rewarding study of how behavioral theories met real-life problems, and the ways in which Skinner and his followers continue to influence the present.

Professor Rutherford is a faculty member of the graduate program in the History and Theory of Psychology at York University and a Fellow of the Society for the History of Psychology. She was gracious enough to grant AHP an interview about her new book. This follows below the fold.

AHP: How did this research project on B. F. Skinner first begin?

AR: My research on Skinner began an awfully long time ago! I first became interested in Skinner during my doctoral training in the History and Theory of Psychology program at York. It was actually several people’s rather vehement negative reactions, both to Skinner and to the fact that I was interested in him, that particularly intrigued me. I decided to try and figure out, using a survey of popular press and archival material, exactly what the range of these reactions had been during Skinner’s career, and how to make sense of this range in the context of the broader social, cultural, political, and ideological issues with which they intersected in mid-20th century America.

When I finished my dissertation, I became more and more interested in the followers of Skinner who began applying his techniques to human behavior outside the laboratory, that is, outside the confines of the Skinner box—hence the title of my book, Beyond the Box. These people, and the projects they undertook, are actually the main focus of my account. I write about their efforts to study human behavior experimentally by constructing room-sized analogues of the operant chamber, how they developed and used behavior modification techniques in prisons, psychiatric hospitals, self-help books, and intentional communities. My aim is to move beyond the pigeon lab to explore how Skinnerians moved their system into the lives of thousands of Americans, the cultural openings and resistances they encountered, and the effects of this process on both the professional community and the American experience.

AHP: While Beyond the Box is about B. F. Skinner, it is not a biography of Skinner. Why did you decide not to do a biography of Skinner?

AR: There is a very good biography of Skinner by Daniel Bjork, called B. F. Skinner: A Life. I would recommend it. Julie Skinner Vargas, one of Skinner’s daughters, is also working on a biography of her father. No doubt she has excellent material to work with! Skinner himself wrote a 3-volume autobiography. My interests in Skinner stem from a different place. I am interested in what Skinner and his work, and the offshoots of it, have represented for the American public. I have been interested in how his ideas and techniques have been both embraced and rejected and why, and how this might help us understand the reception of psychological ‘expertise’ in American culture. My interest in Skinner’s technology of behavior, beyond his experimental and theoretical contributions, reflects my interest in how knowledge produced by the discipline of Psychology is used in everyday life and comes to shape the way we think about ourselves. Skinner and the extensions of his work to human problems are wonderful vehicles through which to examine these questions, partly because he was such a ‘visible scientist,’ to use Rae Goodell’s designation, and because his work spawned a technology of behavior that was widely implemented in some fairly controversial ways.

AHP: Much of the focus in your book is on Skinner as a public intellectual. How did the American public come to know Skinner? And, just how well known to the American public was Skinner during the twenty year period (1950-1970) you cover in the book?

AR: The public came to know Skinner largely through his writings for the popular press and through his inventions. Fairly early in his career he wrote an article for the Ladies Home Journal on an invention he called the air crib. The article — and the crib — provoked a fair amount of attention, both positive and negative. Skinner also wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two, that became quite popular during the 1960s and had an influence on the communities movement. His development of programmed instruction and attempts to market teaching machines occurred at the height of the educational technology movement of the late 1950s and early 1960s and garnered quite a lot of coverage in the popular press. No doubt, however, he achieved the height of his public renown after the publication of Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971. It was on the best-seller lists and turned him into a ‘celebrity’ for a brief period. He was on the cover of Time magazine in 1971. [For more information about Skinner’s appearance on the cover of Time magazine listen to Rutherford’s appearance on the This Week in the History of Psychology podcast series produced by Chris Green]

AHP: What are some of the most prevalent misconceptions about Skinner and his work?

AR: I want to reiterate that most of the book is about Skinner’s students and followers and how they transported his techniques out of the laboratory and into everyday life. Clearly Skinner looms large in the background of these developments, but he never actually worked with human beings himself—he stuck with rats and pigeons. That he did not work directly on human behavior was a prominent criticism of him when he did extrapolate his principles to the design of cultures, the solution of social problems, and so on. Many of his followers, were, however, engaged in research and application with human beings –- in room-sized Skinner boxes, to psychiatric wards, to juvenile detention facilities, to communities –- and he was well aware of this work.

Skinner is often portrayed as a ‘black box’ psychologist, which is incorrect. Radical behaviorism does not regard what is inside the head as inaccessible or out of bounds of an experimental analysis of behavior. Rather, what makes it radical is that it does not view the ontological status of the ‘world within the skin’ as any different than that of the world outside. That is, internal experience, although more difficult to study, is still part of the environment that is theoretically admissible to study in the radical behaviorist position. According to Skinnerians, however, it has no special status in determining our behavior.

AHP: Can you tell us a little bit about the sources you consulted for the book?

AR: I consulted a wide variety of sources, from popular magazines and newspapers, to the book and journal literature on Skinnerian science and practice, to historical literature on behaviorism and American psychology, to Skinner’s archived papers at Harvard, as well as many other archival collections. I also conducted my own interviews with Skinnerian psychologists, including Skinner’s daughter, Julie Vargas, Teodoro Ayllon (one of the developers of the first token economy program on a psychiatric ward), James Pear (an author of a “be-your-own behavior modifier” manual), Scott Geller (who implemented a contingency management program in a maximum security prison during the 1970s), Jack Michael (who is often referred to as “Skinner’s bulldog” for his promotion of Skinner’s ideas), and the late Ogden Lindsley (director of the Behavior Research Laboratory at Metropolitan State Hospital in the 1950s and ’60s).

AHP: Who do you hope picks up a copy of the book, and what do you hope they take away with them after having read the book?

AR: I hope that historians of science and psychology pick up the book, as well as students and educated lay people who are interested in the history of psychology. I hope they come away with a more nuanced understanding of Skinner’s legacy and the ways that a technology of behavior entered psychological society in the mid-to-late 20th century, subtly shifting our understandings of ourselves and our relationship to individual and social control. In social and cultural histories of psychotechnologies and the shaping of the psychological self, Skinnerian approaches have gotten short shrift. I hope my book places Skinner’s technology of behavior more centrally into this historiography.

AHP: What are you currently working on?

AR: I have shifted gears somewhat, and while I continue to be interested in the history of behavior modification and Skinnerian psychology, I am now pursuing a project to document, analyze, and reconstruct the history of feminist psychology in North America. Interestingly, this project has attracted a lot more interest from students than my Skinner work ever has, despite my enthusiasm for both projects. I think there is much more historiography on Skinner to be developed. Perhaps as we gain more historical perspective on his work and its significance, more historians will begin working on him.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.

6 thoughts on “Interview with author of Beyond the Box

  1. Thanks for doing this careful work, and from a culturally-oriented perspective. Those of us who were around Skinner at the time realize that many uninformed distortions of his views occurred. Hopefully, this publication of yours will keep the perspective of Skinner alive until someone repackages and updates his work into a revival of scientific and pragmatic humanism.

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