Book of the week: Beyond The Box

Behaviourism's founder has suffered bad press, writes Janine Spencer

July 16, 2009

Who is the most influential psychologist of all time? Sigmund Freud, perhaps, or Jean Piaget? How about Carl Jung or even Hans Eysenck? Actually, a recent survey gave that honour to a man called Burrhus. He was Fred to his friends, but the world knew him as B.F. Skinner, he of the "Skinner Box" and radical behaviourism.

A well-known public figure, Skinner wrote books that became bestsellers and his methods were known far beyond the laboratory. His theories were applied in prisons, hospitals and schools. They became the foundation for new communities. His scientific approach to human behaviour relegated psychoanalysis and introspection to the (academic) backwaters. Even after his death, psychology students continued to study the reinforcement schedules of rats and pigeons - and debate how they applied to human beings.

But does his influence continue to this day? The field he championed - behaviourism - is deeply unfashionable, if not unquestionably dead. Rarely are psychology students today taught more than a few cursory facts that might help them distinguish Pavlovian conditioning from Skinner's operant conditioning.

When I was at graduate school, there were rumours that one of the lecturers was - whisper it - a behaviourist. Sure, he studied rats and mazes, but nobody brought their behaviourism out of the closet. Most psychology departments would still employ the odd psychoanalyst for old times' sake, but it was rare to have an openly behaviourist colleague on the staff.

Behaviourism went almost entirely unmentioned when I first studied psychology, surviving only as the butt of feeble jokes (Q: What does one behaviourist say when he meets another? A: "You're fine, how am I?"). It felt like a relic of the Cold War. Its terminology - "conditioning", "reward and punishment", "behaviour control" - was completely out of step with the times. Indeed, many would say that the date of behaviourism's decline, if not its final breath, was 50 years ago, when linguist Noam Chomsky dealt a savage blow to Skinner's entire ideology in a devastating critique of his book, Verbal Behavior.

So 2009 might seem an odd time to publish a new book on Skinner, especially one that treats him not as a historical curiosity, but as an influential thinker whose work is still relevant today. However, as I read Alexandra Rutherford's fascinating Beyond The Box, it became clear that Skinner's behaviourism is far from dead. It has changed its name by deed poll and moved house, but it lives on.

Rutherford mercifully avoids a detailed summary of Skinner's methods or philosophy, choosing instead to focus on the application and public reception of his ideas. As a result, I learnt more about behaviourism in a few short chapters than in a year of turgid, long-forgotten lectures. While this is by no means a biography, Rutherford draws an uncanny picture of the man, dispelling many of the contradictory myths that have made him seem cold and ruthless.

He never conducted studies on his own (or indeed any) children, nor on people at all. Followers of his philosophy, however, did, and Beyond The Box presents a number of interesting examples of the research conducted on patients in mental facilities and involuntary participants in the US penal system. The message the reader gets is that behaviour modification was at its most successful when the rewards used in training were what we would now consider to be fundamental human rights.

Rights for participants who didn't answer back were considerably less protected, and it is evident that nobody told the behaviourists that you should never work with children and animals, because these are the subjects upon whom their most fruitful research was conducted. Certainly, the methods of operant conditioning were most successful when applied to animals.

Most psychologists I know have badly behaved pets, and their children are even worse. This could be because most psychologists are not behaviourists. A renowned dog psychologist assessed my black labrador and announced that this was the first hopeless case he had come across - not the dog, of course, but me. Barbara Woodhouse used to recommend a choke chain, and the dog psychologist suggested I use an electric collar, which gave a small electric shock in response to bad behaviour. I didn't have the heart for either method. I wouldn't want to be choked or shocked for inappropriate behaviour, so why would I do that to my dog?

And that's the problem with using behaviourism in self-help books: most people don't have the stomach for inflicting punishment on others, never mind themselves. Of course, effective "behaviour modification" is something many parents would be eager to implement on their own children, although they might balk at administering mild electric shocks for "punishment by contingent stimulation". That's where the new "Supernanny" brigade comes in: they use a modified version of behaviourism, in which the child is told why he or she is being punished or rewarded. Personally, I found this never worked on my son during his tantrums - but then I'm a psychologist.

Nowadays, of course, ethical considerations mean that you can't say boo to a goose without first obtaining the goose's written consent, and conducting a risk assessment of the possible health and safety hazards. It's a minefield of bureaucratic litigation avoidance that makes you nostalgic for the good old days of electric shocks, deception and humiliation, all in the name of science. Of course, that's precisely why ethics rules came into force. Rutherford explains how behaviourists in the Skinner mould, working in prisons and hospitals, were among those responsible for bringing psychology into public disrepute in the 1960s and 1970s, paving the way for the system of ethical approval of research studies we enjoy today.

This does not mean that the behaviourist approach to human psychology is no longer ethically possible. Rather, different systems of reward and punishment are used in more imaginative ways. Among them is the avoidance of terms such as "reward" and "punishment", and indeed "behaviourism" itself. Most of the students in my Autism Spectrum Disorder class have completed internships with autism charities or in schools for children with autism, and are adept at working one-to-one with children using the ABA paradigm to help them learn new skills. Few of them know that ABA stands for "applied behaviour analysis", and fewer still have the slightest inkling that it is the contemporary descendant of Skinner's behaviourism.

There is so much more to Skinner's legacy than this, however. The young B.F. Skinner aspired to be a novelist. He completed only one work of fiction - a utopian fantasy called Walden Two. It was short, almost impossible to publish, and sold only a few copies on its debut in 1948. But in under two decades, communities would be founded on the principles it described and his top-selling philosophical treatise, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), would make him a household name.

Beyond The Box won't change your mind about behaviourism. It remains a limited approach to psychology, even in its modern guise of ABA. It won't stop you confusing negative rewards and positive punishments. But it will bring an important part of psychology to life and change your view of Skinner. It's the kind of book that makes you realise you have been undereducated and misinformed.


Alexandra Rutherford, associate professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, describes Skinner and his technology of behaviour - the subject of her first book - as her "first loves" in the history of psychology.

She has since turned her attention to the history of feminist psychology and has interviewed more than 80 feminist psychologists to help document their lives and careers.

Rutherford is also a clinical psychologist and faculty member in York University's history and theory of psychology graduate programme, one of the few such courses to exist worldwide.

She lives in Toronto with her husband, Wade Pickren, who is also a historian of psychology, and their dog Benny.

In her spare time, Rutherford loves to garden and cook, and one day dreams of becoming a food activist.

Beyond The Box: B.F. Skinner's Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s

By Alexandra Rutherford

University of Toronto Press 224pp, £35.00 and £15.00

ISBN 9780802097743 and 96180

Published 25 June 2009

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