Tag Archives: Skinner

Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good: From the Panopticon to the Skinner Box and Beyond

A new book from from University of Chicago Press may be of interest to AHP readers. As described on the publisher’s site, Cathy Gere’s Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good: From the Panopticon to the Skinner Box and Beyond asks

How should we weigh the costs and benefits of scientific research on humans? Is it right that a small group of people should suffer in order that a larger number can live better, healthier lives? Or is an individual truly sovereign, unable to be plotted as part of such a calculation?

These are questions that have bedeviled scientists, doctors, and ethicists for decades, and in Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good, Cathy Gere presents the gripping story of how we have addressed them over time. Today, we are horrified at the idea that a medical experiment could be performed on someone without consent. But, as Gere shows, that represents a relatively recent shift: for more than two centuries, from the birth of utilitarianism in the eighteenth century, the doctrine of the greater good held sway. If a researcher believed his work would benefit humanity, then inflicting pain, or even death, on unwitting or captive subjects was considered ethically acceptable. It was only in the wake of World War II, and the revelations of Nazi medical atrocities, that public and medical opinion began to change, culminating in the National Research Act of 1974, which mandated informed consent. Showing that utilitarianism is based in the idea that humans are motivated only by pain and pleasure, Gere cautions that that greater good thinking is on the upswing again today and that the lesson of history is in imminent danger of being lost.

Rooted in the experiences of real people, and with major consequences for how we think about ourselves and our rights, Pain, Pleasure, and the Greater Good is a dazzling, ambitious history.

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New Fiction: Skinner’s Quests

A new novel, by Richard Gilbert, offers of fictionalized account of what might have happened had B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud met. Skinner’s Quests is described as follows:

Two of the best known psychologists of the twentieth century, B.F. Skinner and Sigmund Freud, never met. What if they had met? What if, as well, the young B.F. Skinner had discussed matters of mutual interest with Ludwig Wittgenstein, the century’s best known and most eccentric philosopher, also living in England in 1939?

Skinner’s Quests, a novel of ideas and relationships, describes a fictional trip to England by Skinner in May and June 1939. He traveled from his home in Minneapolis to London and Cambridge via Montreal and Glasgow. He returned via Lisbon and New York.

Skinner had two quests. Both were conceived by philosopher and political activist Bertrand Russell, then at the University of Chicago. Both were to do with Russell’s former student Ludwig Wittgenstein – already the 20th century’s preeminent philosopher.

One quest was to correct what Russell regarded as Wittgenstein’s futile flirtation with behaviorism. (Russell had misunderstood Skinner’s position.)

The other quest, in collaboration with the White House, was to exploit Wittgenstein’s association with Adolf Hitler. The two were born a few days apart and were at high school together. Moreover, in 1939 Wittgenstein was involved with the German government, negotiating exemptions for his family from the Nuremburg (Race) Laws. He was also pally with the Soviet government.

Skinner had little interest in Wittgenstein. He welcomed the trip – over the strong objections of his wife – for a chance to meet Sigmund Freud, who was dying in London. Skinner was an admirer of Freud’s writings, even though he disagreed with much of what the founder of psychoanalysis had to say. Skinner met Freud, and Freud’s daughter Anna. In Cambridge, Skinner met Alan Turing as well as Wittgenstein. This was just after Turing had devised the modern computer and before he become a key figure in British cryptanalysis.

During the odyssey, Skinner met with other real and several fictional characters. Some of his encounters were romantic. Some were merely social. Some had a sinister edge that reflected the time of his travels, made during one of modern history’s most fraught periods.

Skinner’s odyssey had mixed success. He had little apparent impact on Wittgenstein, but he clarified his own thinking about several matters and provided information of possible value to the White House. Early in his odyssey, Skinner had visions of being the Darwin of the twentieth century, doing for psychology what Darwin had done for biology in the nineteenth century. Freud cautioned Skinner that his disregard for free will could become associated with totalitarianism. Skinner let the matter rest, at least for the moment.

The book will appeal to readers interested in some or all of these topics: psychology, philosophy, language, evolution, transportation in the 1930s, and the politics of North America and Europe just before the Second World War.

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Air Crib in APS Observer

The September issue of the APS Observer features an article by Nick Joyce and Cathy Faye of the Archives of the History of American Psychology (AHAP). The article, “Skinner Air Crib“, discusses the development of the air crib by B.F. Skinner in the mid-1940s – a climate controlled environment designed to encourage a child’s development. The article discusses some of the myths and legends surround the use of the crib in the Skinner home and also why it failed to gain more widespread popularity in North America.

But the story of the air crib is bigger than just the Skinner story. In 1939, a Dutch doctor created an air crib in Groningen as an aid to child rearing. The outcome was different than the North American story, with the crib still being manufactured and used in some homes in The Netherlands today. The cribs are called “babyhuisjes” in Dutch which translates roughly to “baby house”. Want to build you own babyhuisjes? See here and here.

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New Issue of JHBS

A new issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences just been released online. Included in the October issue of the journal is an article detailing how post-World War II social scientists, associated with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), “consciously sought to create a scientific way of knowing that would bring unity to diversity” (p. 309) and thus reinforce democratic governance. Also featured is an article that recounts the the late-nineteenth century aesthetic research undertaken by Vernon Lee, a pseudonym adopted by British writer Violet Paget (pictured to the right). Finally, this issue of JHBS includes an account of the work of the the Social Science Research Council’s Advisory Committee on Personality and Culture (1930-1934), an interdisciplinary committee that included among its members a number of notable social scientists and clinicians, including Adolf Meyer, Edward Sapir, and Harry Stack Sullivan, among others.

Eight all-new book reviews can also be found in this issue of JHBS, including a review of Alexandra Rutherford’s Beyond the Box: B. F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s, by Ludy T. Benjamin Jr. Beyond the Box has previously been discussed on AHP here and here Continue reading New Issue of JHBS

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Sidney Bijou Dies at 100

Sidney BijouSidney Bijou, the psychologist who developed behaviorist principles into a therapeutic system for children with a range of disorders, died on June 11 at the age of 100. There is an extensive obituary in the New York Times. Bijou worked with radical behaviorist B. F. Skinner in the 1940s, and he came to believe that reinforcing desirable behavior with praise or a hug or just attention would help children who were not responsive to traditional punishments or therapies. Bad behavior was ignored or, if particularly dispurtive, resulted in a short “time out,” which has since become a culturally pervasive technique. Bijou started using his new approach with defiant children, but as the system grew in popularity, it came to be a standard system for helping autistic and attention-deficit children as well, under the name of applied behavior analaysis, or ABA.

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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. Continue reading Interview with author of Beyond the Box

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“Looking for Skinner and finding Freud”

Geir OverskeidA while back, in the Fall of 2007, we posted a handful of notes about the articles then recently published in American Psychologist. But one slipped through the cracks: Geir Overskeid‘s essay on the relationship between Skinner and Freud.

Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner are often seen as psychology’s polar opposites. It seems this view is fallacious. Indeed, Freud and Skinner had many things in common, including basic assumptions shaped by positivism and determinism. More important, Skinner took a clear interest in psychoanalysis and wanted to be analyzed but was turned down. His views were influenced by Freud in many areas, such as dream symbolism, metaphor use, and defense mechanisms. Skinner drew direct parallels to Freud in his analyses of conscious versus unconscious control of behavior and of selection by consequences. He agreed with Freud regarding aspects of methodology and analyses of civilization. In his writings on human behavior, Skinner cited Freud more than any other author, and there is much clear evidence of Freud’s impact on Skinner’s thinking.

However, the delay has afforded an unexpected benefit: the full text of the article can now be found online here. (An additional related reading is provided below the fold.) Continue reading “Looking for Skinner and finding Freud”

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Videos of the Operant Condition

The website of the B. F. Skinner Foundation has posted online six short videos relevant to its namesake’s illustrious career. They include the famous clip of pigeons playing ping pong, Skinner himself conditioning a pigeon to make a complete turn, and a pigeon learning to use a block to reach a “banana” hung from the top of its enclosure (a sly allusion to Wolfgang Köhler’s “insight” research with a chimp named Sultan). The remaining three videos give an illustrated explanation of Skinner’s schedules of reinforcement, a brief appraisal of Skinner’s work by behavior analyst Murray Sidman, and a short interview with Skinner about conditioning, free will, and gambling.

Behaviorists may not be so pleased by a satirical definition of “behaviorism” I recently found on Dr. Mezmer’s Dictionary of Bad Psychology, which reads: Continue reading Videos of the Operant Condition

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