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Eye on Psi Chi: Winter 2016

What Is Old Comes New Again: B. F. Skinner and His Novel, Walden Two
Heather A. Haas, PhD, and Vance Kleeman
The University of Montana Western
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The summer of 2015 marked two important anniversaries in the history of psychology. Twenty-five years ago in August of 1990, B. F. Skinner, best known for his application of behavioral science to the study of pigeons and rats, died. And 45 years before that, 70 years ago in the summer of 1945—after Hitler but before Hiroshima—Skinner wrote a novel titled Walden Two (Skinner, 1976).
What many psychology students may not know is that Skinner had originally hoped to be a writer, was an English major in college, received praise from the poet Robert Frost for his writing, and even took a year off after college to try (ultimately unsuccessfully) to write a novel (Skinner, 1967). Skinner failed as a writer at that point, he later wrote, because he “had nothing important to say” (Skinner, 1967, p. 395). And only when literature failed to satisfy his quest to understand human behavior did he turn seriously to science instead (Skinner, 1967). However, Skinner never gave up those early literary interests and later even taught a course in the psychology of literature (Skinner, 1979). Then, nearly 20 years after deciding he had nothing to say, there was Walden Two.
Walden Two follows a group of six people who visit an experimental community founded on the principle that the application of the experimental analysis of behavior could lead to a better society. The founder of the community, a man named Frazier, acts throughout the book as an advocate for the power and potential of the experimental analysis of behavior. Throughout the book, Frazier’s foil is Castle, a philosophy professor who joins the group visiting the community and who constantly questions not only the feasibility but also the desirability of the scientific control of behavior. The narrator of the story, Burris, is a psychology professor, and it is he, along with the reader, who must find a way to synthesize these two different views of the role of science in maximizing human potential. Skinner himself claimed that the book was “a venture in selftherapy,” written as he was “struggling to reconcile two aspects of my own behavior represented by Burris and Frazier” (Skinner, 1967, p. 403). Within a few years of writing the book, however, Skinner was ready to declare himself “a thorough-going Frazierian” (Skinner 1983, p. 180).
The Writing of Walden Two
Perhaps it was that very personal involvement that explains the experience of the “white heat” (Skinner, 1967, p. 403) in which parts of Walden Two were written. Certainly, the speed with which Walden Two was completed—in only 7 weeks—came as a surprise to Skinner (Skinner, 1967), whose accomplishments were usually attributable to dutiful day-in and day-out effort. Although he noted that he had “done what was expected” of him earlier in his school career, Skinner also noted that he had “seldom worked hard” until he began his graduate studies at Harvard (Skinner, 1967, pp. 397–398). In those years, Skinner began to develop the self-management techniques that allowed him to work steadily throughout his life. In describing the daily schedule he maintained for several years at Harvard, for example, he wrote:
  I would rise at six, study until breakfast, go to classes, laboratories, and libraries with no more than fifteen minutes unscheduled during the day, study until exactly nine o’clock at night and go to bed. I saw no movies or plays, seldom went to concerts, had scarcely any dates, and read nothing but psychology and physiology. (Skinner, 1967, p. 398)
In reflecting on his life later, Skinner wrote, “I have studied when I did not feel like studying…. I have met deadlines for papers and reports…. I write and rewrite a paper until, so far as possible, it says exactly what I have to say” (Skinner, 1967, p. 407). He regularly charted his own progress in a cumulative record and estimated that “it took me two minutes to write each word of my thesis,” noting that that rate had been generally constant for decades as he managed to “salvage about one hundred publishable words” from the 3 or 4 hours of writing he did each day (Skinner, 1967, p. 403). Among his many accomplishments, Skinner was named as perhaps the single most eminent psychologist of the 20th century (Haggbloom et al., 2002) and a Distinguished Member of Psi Chi (Psi Chi Distinguished Members, 2013), so his means of controlling his own behavior were clearly effective even if the process seems a bit plodding. In contrast, the speed with which Walden Two was written is notable, and Skinner himself attributed the rush of verbal behavior that resulted in Walden Two at least in part to that fact that it was “generously reinforced” (Skinner, 1979, p. 298) by the responses of his wife and friends as he read the work to them, episode by episode.
Skinner indicated at various points in his later writing that Walden Two was influenced not only by the recent events in the world at large, but also by several personal experiences. Skinner explicitly stated that his work on Project Pigeon, a project designed to demonstrate that operant conditioning could be used to train pigeons to guide missiles, had begun to raise important issues about the implications and ethics of a science of behavioral control, and this topic was something he addressed directly in Walden Two (Skinner, 1983, p. 98). As the war wound down, his personal experiences further coalesced into concerns about a number of social issues. His oldest daughter’s first year in school had him thinking about education (Skinner, 1976), he saw women like his wife trapped in limited and limiting domestic roles (Skinner, 1976), and he had been meeting regularly with a group of philosophers (including one Alburey Castell, who would later become “a not very accurate portrait” of the character of Castle in Walden Two; Skinner, 1979, p. 297) to discuss the control of human behavior (Skinner, 1976). Like many people, Skinner wanted to make a better world. Like few other people, he believed that an experimental analysis of behavior was the best way to do it. Walden Two can be seen as Skinner’s blueprint for how to improve society as a whole, not necessarily by implementing the specific practices he described in his book but by viewing all social practices through a scientific lens.
Critical and Public Reaction to Walden Two
Although the book had been finished quickly, it was difficult to get it published. The book was rejected several times before it was finally accepted, and it was printed in 1948 by a publisher who agreed to publish it only after Skinner agreed to write an introductory textbook for them (Skinner, 1976, 1983). Furthermore, when the book was first published, it was frequently criticized. The New York Times noted that the book “is intellectually provocative, as many utopias have been, although wooden and tedious as a work of fiction, as most utopias have been also” (Prescott, 1948, p. 21), and Skinner referred defensively several times to the book review and a related editorial that appeared in Life in his autobiography (Skinner, 1979, 1983). But the significance of Walden Two is not as a work of literature but as a repository of important ideas (Prescott, 1948).
The specific practices of the Walden Two community—the 4-hour workday, the use of lollipops and forbidden soup to teach self-control, and the specially designed air cribs much like one Skinner actually built for his daughter (Vargas, 1996)—are likely to make the biggest initial impression on the reader. However, these specific practices are actually beside the point, which is that careful analysis of the contingencies of behavior could allow us to create a better world for everyone. Unfortunately, the book does not explain exactly how such a system could be implemented, and Walden Two would be a poor primer to the field of behavior analysis because it contains no reference to any applications of now commonly recognized behavioral processes such as shaping, chaining, and stimulus generalization. In fact, in some places, Skinner even uses technical terminology in a way that is very different from what is presented in textbooks today.1 What the book emphasizes, however, is the more general behavioral ethos that we are not limited merely to being what we are, but rather that we can, through careful control of the environment, become better than whatever we currently are—and that this is better accomplished using positive reinforcement than aversive control.
What is also very evident in Walden Two is Skinner’s very interdisciplinary bent. Even in college, Skinner noted that he took “an absurd program of courses” while also noting that “in some curious way I have made good use of every one of them” (Skinner, 1967, p. 391–392). His interest in psychology, he noted, grew out of a childhood interest in building things (including a contraption to help him remember to hang up his pajamas), and early interests in animal behavior, biology, philosophy, and literature (which led to his writing, as an undergraduate, a term paper on the madness of Hamlet and a play about changing personality by changing people’s “endocrines”; Skinner, 1967). Walden Two clearly reflects these varied interests with far less focus on psychology than on art, music, theater, government, and philosophy.
Although Walden Two was not widely read at first (selling only a little over 1,000 copies in the year it was released; Vargas, 1996), interest increased significantly with the advent of the counterculture revolution of the 1960s, and by 1972, the book had sold over a million copies (Vargas, 1996). After the book’s publication, Skinner received many letters asking if he ever planned on creating a community such as Walden Two (Skinner, 1983). Although Skinner himself never tried to make Walden Two a reality, others did. Many of these attempts failed, although some found at least a measure of success. Most notable among these are the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia and Los Horcones in Mexico. Although Twin Oaks no longer identifies itself as a behaviorist community, it was started in 1967 with the idea of creating a Walden Two-like society (Walden Two & Twin Oaks). A number of variables probably contributed to the demise of behaviorism at Twin Oaks including a lack of any real understanding of behaviorism on the part of most of the members and founders (Walden’s Two’s Bastard Child, n.d.). The arrival of the hippies who shared some (e.g., low consumerism) but not all of the values on which Skinner’s community was based might also have played a significant role. As one ex-member wrote, “In Walden Two, Frasier said, ‘Give me the specifications, and I’ll give you the man!’ while hippies would counter, ‘Just be yourself and don’t put your trips on other people, man.’” (Walden Two’s Bastard Child, n.d.). Los Horcones in Mexico was created in 1971. The biggest difference between Twin Oaks and Los Horcones is also the biggest difference between Twin Oaks and Walden Two because both the fictional Walden Two and the real Los Horcones are dedicated to the intention of using behavioral sciences to find solutions to the many problems that human beings face (Los Horcones, n.d.). Not only does the Los Horcones community use behavior analysis to support a community life based on respect, cooperation, equality, and tolerance for others (Los Horcones, n.d.), but the community also uses behavior analysis in its work teaching children with autism, work they have been doing for more than 30 years (Los Horcones, n.d.).
The Relevance of Walden Two to Psychology Students Today
Given that 70 years have passed since Walden Two was published, it is perhaps not surprising that students today might believe it is outdated. In some ways, it is. Perhaps most notable is the way that Skinner appears to champion the equality of sexes, which at the time that Walden Two was published was probably a rather radical idea but is now considerably less so and manifest in ways Skinner was not able to capture. Beyond that, telegrams are sent, watches are wound, radio schedules are listed in the newspaper, phonograph records are played, and experiments are under way to determine whether fluorine would be useful in preventative dentistry. In much more important ways, however, Skinner was half a century ahead of his time.
Reading Walden Two at the beginning of the 21st century, it is easy to argue that Skinner was a positive psychologist 50 years before the positive psychology movement began (Adams, 2012). Positive psychology emphasizes the importance of the scientific study of positive emotions, positive personal traits, and positive institutions (Seligman & Csikszentmihalyi, 2000), and each of these emphases is evident in Walden Two. In the Walden Two community, the goal is to maximize not just happiness but a number of other positive states including satisfaction, fulfillment, and engagement as well. Furthermore, the goal is not just to feel good but to be good (i.e., to be productive and to fulfill one’s potential in work and in leisure), and a means to that end is to create a citizenry characterized by self-control, flexibility, and creativity rather than one motivated by jealousy and competition. Moreover, the whole structure of the community is aligned with the achievement of these ends. For example, positive psychologists today often emphasize the recurrent theme from research that indicates that neither more money nor greater materialism is highly predictive of more happiness, at least once basic needs are met, and this theme pervades the structure of Walden Two as a community where time to pursue one’s interests was seen to be far more valuable than an abundance of personal possessions could ever be.
Skinner, of course, did not write explicitly about positive psychology. Instead, he wrote about the pursuit of the Good Life. Continuing the theme B. F. Skinner initiated seven decades ago, over the last 15 years positive psychologists have been attempting not only to discover what the Good Life entails but also how to use psychology to make the Good Life possible for all people. The Good Life is the end goal of all positive psychologists; to discover how to live the Good Life would be for the positive psychologists to have done everything they wanted to do. Likewise, Frazier states that the purpose of the Walden Two community is to discover what the Good Life is and how to make it a reality. According to Frazier (and therefore Skinner) the Good Life is a combination of health, as little unpleasant labor as is possible, the opportunity to utilize talents and develop intimate and satisfying relationships, and time to relax (Skinner, 1976, p. 147–148). Walden Two is essentially Skinner’s blue print for achieving the Good Life and a number of his proposals find at least some support in the positive psychology literature. A positive psychologist might well read this story and say this is exactly what the positive psych movement is all about.
Of course, not everyone will come away a convert. There is a reason why the writing was criticized, and there are a number of reasons why Walden Two might well be considered a dystopia rather than a utopia. The Walden Two community might well remind some readers more of Jim Jones and the People’s Temple than of paradise. One of the biggest issues is that controlling human behavior by controlling contingencies seems to take away free will. One must ask whether it is ever acceptable, no matter how benign the intentions, for psychologists to engage in behaviors that, at least on the surface, look a lot like manipulation of individual desires, suppression of dissenting opinions, and absolving individuals of responsibility for their undesirable behaviors. Despite all its good intentions, one might reasonably ask, if the creation of Walden Two were a research proposal, would it pass an IRB and should it? Skinner has answers to these questions and presents many of them in Walden Two, but they are certainly questions worth asking. If Walden Two doesn’t appeal to you, you are not alone. Skinner’s own wife, Yvonne, once said, “We had tremendous arguments about Walden Two. I wouldn’t like it; I just like change and privacy” (Skinner’s Utopia, 1971) and Skinner’s father, to whom the book is dedicated (along with his mother), told Skinner that he thought “the only sensible things in the book were said by Castle” (Skinner, 1979, p. 347). That said, however, one author argued, at the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication, that reception to the book today would probably be more positive than it was at the time it was released. She wrote,
  It could be that we have simply lived longer with Darwin, Freud, Marx, and Madison Avenue and are less shocked by the idea that we are not free. It could be that “science and technology” in 1948 called forth the A-bomb, while “science and technology” in 1998 call forth the Internet and a cure for cancer. It could be that the image of our nation’s inner cities puts us more in touch with the real horrors of scarcity and misery, against which happiness, self-control, and productivity look just fine as goals for humanity. And against displays of rapacious arrogance, wealth and power, more equal division of fewer goods looks sensible as an economic goal. (Day, 1999)
One way or the other, with the 70th anniversary at hand, Walden Two remains a classic in psychology. After all, the fictional Walden Two community and the field of psychology share a common goal and a goal that most of us have for our own lives: to make our own lives and life for all people the best we can possibly make it. If you are interested in behaviorism, the history of psychology, or how to use psychology to live a better life and create a better world, you might want to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the publication of Walden Two by reading or re-reading the book this year. Behaviorism: It’s not just for Skinner boxes anymore. And it hasn’t been since 1945 when Skinner made his first real foray into the discussion of what behaviorism means for the control of human behavior and betterment of the human condition in his writing of Walden Two.
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1 In Chapter 29 of Walden Two, for example, Frazier says, “if it’s in our power to create any of the situations which a person likes or to remove any situation he doesn’t like, we can control his behavior. When he behaves as we want him to behave, we simply create a situation he likes, or remove one he doesn’t like. As a result, the probability that he will behave that way again goes up, which is what we want. Technically it’s called ‘positive reinforcement’ ” (Skinner, 1976, p. 244). Today, however, we would call both of these processes reinforcement but contrast the creation of a“liked” situation (positive reinforcement) with the removal of a “disliked” situation (negative reinforcement). And, of course, if we are really channeling our inner radical behaviorists, we would avoid the reference to “liking” all together. Skinner himself later acknowledged that in his early work he “had first used the term ‘negative reinforcement,’ incorrectly, to mean ‘punishment’ ” (Skinner, 1979, p. 321). Thus Walden Two presents a very early version of Skinner’s ideas, an understanding that would change in other ways as well (Skinner, 1983, p. 359) although the book, once published, could not change to keep pace with the development of Skinner’s ideas over the course of his life.

Heather A. Haas, PhD, received her BS in psychology from Rocky Mountain College in Montana, an MPhil in psychologyfrom the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and a PhD in personality research from the University of Minnesota (where her behavior genetics seminar was held in the “Skinner room”). Dr. Haas is currently a professor of psychology at The University of Montana Western where she teaches the introductory course, developmental, abnormal, personality, social, behavior analysis and capstone seminars in areas including positive psychology, the psychology of happiness, and survey research. Dr. Haas’s research endeavors are split between personality psychology and paremiology (i.e., the study of proverbs). When Dr. Haas was an undergraduate, she had very little respect for behaviorism. But her opinion changed when she read Walden Two the summer after she graduated and in later coursework with Dr. Chris Cullen at St. Andrews and Dr. Gail Peterson at the University of Minnesota.

Vance Kleeman is a 2015 graduate of The University of Montana Western (UMW), where he earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with a minor in legal studies. He first read Walden Two while taking a class on behavior analysis, and it was in this class where he took a liking to behaviorism. Vance was really drawn to Walden Two due to the possibilities of a real-life Walden Two-like community being created, a community in which behaviorism was used to shape the entire culture. It was also during this class that he decided that he would eventually like to become a research psychologist and a college professor. He is currently coordinating the UMW SafeRide program and is applying to graduate programs in psychology.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Heather A. Haas, Department of History, Philosophy, and Social Sciences, The University of Montana Western, 710 S. Atlantic St., Dillon, MT 59725. E-mail:

Copyright 2016 (Volume 20, Issue 2) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


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