By Harla Frank, M.S., BCBA
*Note: This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of Behavior Analysis Quarterly, Vol 3(1).
Imagine no possessions.
I wonder if you can.
No need for greed or hunger.
A brotherhood of man.
Imagine all the people sharing all the world.
You may say I’m a dreamer.
But I’m not the only one.
I hope some day, you’ll join us.
And the world will be as one.
John Lennon recorded the song, “Imagine,” in 1971. The words reflect a longing for something different, a change in the status quo. This longing has been reflected in countless works of fiction, in songs, and in the political movements that have usurped governments for centuries. Robert Silverstein, American writer, artist, and social activist, said, “Human history has been recorded as a succession of wars and changing empires. But a ray of hope has been carried forth throughout the ages by dreamers who have envisioned a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world” (Silverstein, 2014, p. 1). These “dreamers” are considered “visionaries” by some and “extremists” by others. B. F. Skinner was such a visionary. He saw the social inequalities, the discord, the violence, and the chaos of his day and decided to change his world through “behavioral engineering” (Skinner, 1976, p. vi).
It was the summer of 1945 when thoughts of a community based upon behavioral principles began to take root. Skinner had enjoyed some success after the publication of his book, Behavior of Organisms, seven years prior, and had just completed a year on a Guggenheim Fellowship (Skinner, 1976, v). Recently, the topic of “the control of human behavior” had featured prominently in his monthly discussions with a group of philosophers that included Herbert Feigl, Alburey Castell, and Robert Penn Warren (Skinner, 1976, vi). These conversations, and Skinner’s work in operant conditioning, led to thoughts of how behavioral engineering could be used to improve the human condition (Skinner, 1976). He had also read the novel, Freedom’s Ferment, written by his colleague, Alice F. Tyler, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota. This novel was, in Skinner’s words, “a study of perfectionist movements in America in the nineteenth century” (Skinner, 1976, vi). Freedom’s Ferment included topics on religious life, slavery, the women’s rights and temperance movements, as well as transcendentalism and social reform (Irrmann, 1944). These influences, and having two months free of work responsibilities before beginning his new role as chair of the psychology department at Indiana University, culminated in his novel, Walden Two (Skinner, 1976).
Man’s quest for perfection and the belief that change is not out of reach did not begin with B. F. Skinner and Walden Two. Rather, man’s search for a more perfect society has existed for millennia. In 350 B.C., Plato wrote The Republic, in which he expounded on the importance of justice in man and society (Kemerling, 2011). Within the discussion of justice, topics concerning human nature, knowledge, education, and morality are explored (Kemerling, 2011). Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, published in 1516, illustrates a self-sufficient way of life in which all things are shared in common. The community boasts a “6-hour workday . . . productive trade . . . religious freedom,” and the dissolution of money and private property (Mastin, 2008, para. 5). H. G. Wells, in A Modern Utopia, published in 1905, depicts a world with no boundaries in which a limited amount of labor is required, leisure is encouraged, and there is a ruling class that provides leaders, lawyers, and doctors for society (Mastin, 2008). Walden Two shares characteristics in common with these depictions of utopian societies, i.e., labor is limited to 4-hours or less per day; money is not used (money—a token economy—is replaced by labor units that are earned based on the job performed and exchanged for the things one needs—another token economy); pursuing one’s interests is encouraged; and curiosity—with an “eye” toward life-long learning—is nurtured (Skinner, 1976). Where Walden Two departs from earlier works of utopian fiction is in Skinner’s focus on experimentation—not being “married” to an idea or “way of doing.” The inhabitants of Walden Two would give up those things that did not work toward the good of the community and instead build and reinforce those behaviors/practices that were beneficial (Skinner, 1976).
The backdrop of this experiment in behavioral engineering is a rural community of one thousand members called, “Walden Two.” The story begins with an impromptu visit from one of Professor Burris’ former students, Rogers. He is accompanied by his friend, Jamnik. Both young men, World War II veterans, tell the professor that they have had a lot of time to talk about his idea of a utopian community. The young men tell Burris about an article they read in which a man named Frazier described plans to begin a community based upon the ideas that Burris had shared with his students years earlier. Professor Burris remembered his acquaintance in graduate school who believed that through the science of behavior, one could create a “heaven on earth” (Skinner, 1976, p. 289). This conversation led Professor Burris to contact Frazier, which resulted in an invitation to visit Walden Two (Skinner, 1976).
The small band of inquisitive acquaintances board a train to a city thirty miles from the experimental community. From the train station, they ride the bus to Walden Two. The group consists of Burris, Rogers, and Jamnik— and their girlfriends, and Burris’ colleague, Augustine Castle. Upon arrival, the group is given the grand tour.
The community is a picture of efficiency! The homes are primarily built of rammed earth that are connected through a series of passages that provide protection from inclement weather. Children are raised by the community, rather than solely by their biological parents, and are lavished with love and attention. They are reared in an intentional manner in which the petty emotions of jealousy, discouragement, and competition are not given the opportunity to grow. The reduction of time given to the labors of everyday life, made possible through practical technologies, provide time for community members to pursue their individual interests. The innate curiosity of childhood is reinforced in order that learning becomes a lifelong endeavor. In this experimental community, reinforcement, rather than punishment, is the effector of change.
Walden Two . . . a community in which individuals design contingencies of reinforcement that shape social behaviors of value to any society, behaviors such as thrift, industry, stewardship, creativity, etc., is not without its detractors. Insight from his own punishment history may have prompted Dr. Skinner to create a protagonist in his novel in the person of Augustine Castle. Throughout most of the text, Castle poses many of the questions that would later be posed by Skinner’s contemporaries. One such criticism centers on the argument that free will and individual freedom are removed by the precise control of behavioral contingencies. Indeed, Hilke Kuhlmann (2005) paints such a stark picture of Walden Two that the reader can imagine Frazier as the scientist in a lab and the individuals in the community as lab rats in an experiment in which they are “pulling the levers” and getting their needs met—and are oblivious to those who are delivering the pellets (p. 17). Another criticism focuses on the hypothesized need for “spontaneous adaptation” in the face of threat and uncertainty in order to have a sense of purpose (Tabensky, 2009, p. 11). Tabensky (2009) presented the argument that purpose, ingenuity, and joy are forged in the fire of adversity—that one can more fully appreciate the good having experienced the bad (p. 11). Alan Pope (2016) presented an argument against the quest for utopia by attempting to demonstrate that, while the desire for a utopia provides the fuel to move us forward toward that goal, humankind will ultimately be frustrated in such an attempt. The suffering brought about by the attempt to achieve the impossible can be avoided by putting off this quest and, instead, devoting oneself to knowing one’s own mind (Pope, 2016).
The criticisms of Skinner’s vision of a community founded on the principles of behavior seem to be based on misconceptions of the science of behavior and misperceptions of free will and individual choice—as the behaviorist views them. For example, Pope stated that when one has “transcended the striving for utopia,” one can “have the greatest potential to benefit humankind” by addressing human needs without “being lost in hopes and fears about the future” (Pope, 2016, p. 12). Indeed, Skinner was portraying how the proven principles of behavior could be applied to society to improve the human condition. Altus and Morris (2009) clearly stated that Skinner’s intent was to uphold the importance of experimentation in the search for ways to increase social justice and improve human well-being. In identifying the parallels of Walden Two to Positive Psychology, Nelson Adams (2012) pointed out the similar goals of “subjective well-being, character strengths, and mutually supportive institutions” (p. 1). While the goals may be similar, the two sciences view the vehicle to these goals differently. Skinner saw these characteristics as arising from our “unique learning history . . . genotype” and our “social environment” (Adams, 2012, p. 4). With learning history and social environment in mind, Skinner saw the value in designing a community based on contingencies of reinforcement that would promote the characteristics necessary to a society’s survival and to human well-being, i.e., “wisdom . . . courage . . . humanity . . . justice . . . temperance” and an unspoken, general attitude of gratefulness that grows from a society founded upon these characteristics (Adams, 2012, p. 4-6).
So, how does a behaviorist explain “free will” and “individual choice?” Skinner would say that from birth, the individual is shaped by genetic endowment and the contingencies to which he/she is exposed (as cited in Adams, 2012). One develops a behavioral repertoire based on the contingencies of reinforcement and punishment. These experiences inform how the individual makes choices, responds to the environment, and even plans for the future—whether those contingencies are designed by someone who understands and guides development for the individual’s and society’s well-being or whether the contingencies are random and presented by the whims of those who are responding based upon their own genetic endowment and learning history. “The world takes control of behavior when either survival or reinforcement has been contingent on it” (Skinner, 1989, p. 14). At the second publication of Walden Two in 1976, Skinner composed a new introduction to the novel. It offered him an opportunity to reflect on current society and the need for a behavioral model for society:
“The choice is clear: either we do nothing and allow a miserable and probably catastrophic future to overtake us, or we use our knowledge about human behavior to create a social environment in which we shall live productive and creative lives and do so without jeopardizing the chances that those who follow us will be able to do the same. (p. xvi)”
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Kuhlmann, H. (2005). Living Walden Two: B. F. Skinner’s behaviorist utopia and experimental communities. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
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