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B.F. Skinner on language
and life

Although B.F. Skinner has never been actively involved in any field of applied psychology, or seriously pursued any form of experimental research other than that involving rats and pigeons in Skinner boxes, he turned voluntarily in mid-career to the wider reaches of human psychology, making the change at about the same point as Watson’s less premeditated switch to advertising. I should make it clear at the outset that in general I regard Skinner’s (and Skinnerian) efforts in this direction as largely sterile, pointless and misguided, but these efforts are at least worthy of inspection; and it is arguable that in some limited areas, such as the management of otherwise intractable conditions like chronic schizophrenia, anorexia nervosa and very severe mental retardation, worthwhile contributions to important practical problems have been made. We may consider separately Skinner’s discussion of human language, which is almost universally denounced, and is probably underrated; the extension of Skinnerian methodology to special clinical populations, which has been relatively widespread but is undoubtedly overrated by its advocates; and

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Skinner’s larger recommendations for the organization of entire human societies or communities, which have received a surprisingly large amount of attention, although hardly anyone agrees with them.

Language as a form of learning

Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior (1957) is very long, and extremely boring to read, partly because of ugly and unnecessary neologisms like ‘mands’ (for demands and requests), ‘tacts’ (for otherwise naming and commenting in things) and ‘autoclitics’ and ‘intraverbals’ (which are supposed to cover just about everything else). The book, although dedicated to Skinner’s young daughters as his ‘primary sources’, is not predominantly about the acquisition of their first language by children. Rather, it makes an ambitious attempt to explain every aspect of the adult use of language, including poetry and metaphor and problems of composition such as self-editing and style. Alexander Pope represents the conditioning effect of rhymed couplets on intraverbal repertoires, James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake is the classic example of multiple thematic sources leading to the recombination of fragments in extended verbal frames, and W.S. Gilbert is amusing because polysyllabic rhymes allow multiple sources of strength to overflow normal limits. This may or may not be an acceptable form of literary analysis, but Skinner’s critics are surely right when they suggest that James Joyce is rather a long way away from rats in Skinner boxes.

Two-year-olds, however, are not as far from rats as James Joyce is, and perhaps a 1-year-old child is more like a rat than like a literary critic (or like a professor of linguistics). There is thus at least an initial justification for looking at early language acquisition in terms of learning processes. But first Chomsky (1959), and then other linguists and psychologists (e.g. Lenneberg, 1967), came down on Skinner so heavily that for a time it seemed as though ‘learning to talk’ actually involved no learning from experience or interaction with a social world whatever, but was just a pre- programmed event that happened to all babies, rather like teething, but with innately determined syntactical structures bursting through (some sooner than others) instead of teeth.

In fact Chomsky (1976) still says that as far as he is concerned,

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learning to talk might just as well be instantaneous — any gradual changes that might look like learning by experience (and all differences between one child and another) are better ignored. That may be all very well for Chomsky, but few psychologists would want to turn their backs completely on the data that can be gathered by actually studying the progress of an infant’s development. However, the strength of Chomsky’s reputation as a linguist, and the fact that many of the arrows aimed by him and others at Skinner’s book undoubtedly found good marks, has meant that Skinner’s theory in particular, and learning theories of language acquisition in general, have received even more ignominy than is their due.

I have lost count of the times students have told me that Skinner is wrong because ‘by his method it would take a million years to learn a language’; ‘children do not just copy their parents, they make up new words (sentences) they have never heard before, and say things like “mouses” which they have never been reinforced for’; ‘according to Skinner children always pick up language from their parents, but isolated children can invent their own’; ‘it is ridiculous to say that we have to talk faster or speak louder if we want something badly’; ‘according to Skinner rats could be trained to talk if they lived long enough’; ‘how could we talk without learning grammar’; ‘speech involves re-combining the same elements in different orders, and you can’t explain saying things in order by learning’.

These are all interesting ideas, but they bear very little relation to what Skinner himself actually said (and of course it might just be possible that someone could improve on Skinner without necessarily having to become Chomsky). To start with the minor points: first, Skinner does not say we could teach rats to talk; in fact he goes to the opposite extreme of saying that we could not train a cat to miaow to be let out or to get food, because animal vocalizations are only fixed emotional responses (1957, p. 464). In fact cats can be trained to miaow for food (Molliver, 1963) in the laboratory, and all cats I know of miaow to get out. The form of most mammalian vocalizations is fixed, and so to a large extent is the form of human crying, laughing, screaming and groaning. But of course many birds can produce the phonetic part of speech, if nothing else. Skinner says that the initial babbling of human babies ‘is undoubtedly an evolutionary product’ (i.e. innate) and

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that perhaps the human female makes innate responses to the innate cries of her baby. He is thus not completely against innate influences on human language even though he can certainly be accused of not taking human innate abilities enough into account.

Secondly, he takes innate abilities enough into account to acknowledge that ‘Occasionally ... two or more children have grown up in partial isolation from established verbal communities and have developed fairly extensive idiosyncratic verbal systems’ (1957, p. 462). Nothing much is made of this, but it is surely not unreasonable to emphasize that normally people’s speech is very strongly determined by their verbal environment (e.g. regional dialects and class differences, to say nothing of differences between English and Basque, Bantu and a certain Brazilian Indian language which normally has the object in sentences first).

Thirdly, it is true Skinner says that those who find talking rewarding will be enthusiastic talkers, but he is not silly enough to have failed to notice that there is more to talking than volume: ‘there is no relation between the energy of the behaviour and the magnitude of the effect achieved. We sometimes shout to get action, but a whisper will have the same effect under other circumstances’ (1957, p. 204).

Fourthly, neither was Skinner so foolish as to suggest that children copy everything from their parents, or have to be separately reinforced for every single compound utterance they have the potential ability to make, thus requiring the various fictitious estimates of language acquisition in units of thousands of years. Most, though not all, children copy a great deal from their parents (and from teachers, little friends and the Incredible Hulk). Even Chomsky, in the course of his famously critical review, says ‘it seems beyond question that children acquire a good deal of their verbal and nonverbal behavior by casual observation and imitation of adults and other children’ (1959, p. 42). And, on the next page, ‘As far as language acquisition is concerned, it seems clear that reinforcement, casual observation, and natural inquisitiveness (coupled with a strong tendency to imitate) are important factors, as is the remarkable capacity of the child to generalize, hypothesize, and “process information”.’ But Chomsky received no academic reinforcement for this sensible even-handedness, and so stopped it (1976,1980).

But although any babies (for instance those born deaf) who

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could not imitate speech would be at a crippling disadvantage in language acquisition, imitation is certainly not the whole story, as Skinner himself observed. One thing that seems to happen is that children learn ‘units’, or ‘segments’, or ‘fragments’ of speech which can then be ‘composed’ into new combinations. As Skinner puts it, ‘He singed is obviously composed from separate elements’ (1957, p. 121). This is the same simple argument as that derived from ‘mouses’, ‘Daddy typewritering’ and all other cases where English-speaking infants charmingly use parts of speech in new but wrong ways (foreign children can do this as well, but not as often, since there are few languages where rules have to be broken as often as in English). Skinner goes to some lengths to try and explicate what is happening, but unfortunately seems to have had a phobia about the word ‘rule’. In the boy runs, the final s is a unit which is related to current activity by one person; in the boys run the same unit (s) has other functions — denoting plurality; and in the boy’s gun a very similar sound is now a unit which indicates ‘possession’ (1957, pp. 121, 331—67). Chomsky had no trouble in pointing out that this particular unit has inconsistent functions, and made the incontestable claim that what Skinner is doing does not seem very different from traditional grammar. But Skinner is quite ready to admit that in the case of the boy runs his description of the s ‘can scarcely be said to be an improvement upon the traditional statement that runs is a “verb in the third person singular and the present tense”.’ What Skinner ought really to have said is that infants have to learn rules about the meanings of individual speech elements, and in addition rules about how to put such elements together, and since this is on the face of it a matter of learning from experience, perhaps we can consider it as a special case of more general processes of learning, some of which may be observed even in rats.

What Skinner in fact wrote was that all these different functional units exist, and that they and the process of assembling units into phrases and sentences depend upon ‘the environment’ and ‘the verbal community’. There is undoubtedly an awful lot missing from this, and it is probably hopelessly inadequate as a theory of language acquisition. On the other hand, even though it is limited it is nothing like as implausible as the ‘straw man’ version of Skinner’s theory which tends to be put forward by his supporters as well as his opponents.

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If there is any doubt about Skinner’s commitment in Verbal Behavior to a doctrine of language as a system of re-combinable elements, consider his relatively original speculations about the meaningful units usually called ‘morphemes’ (1957, pp. 121—3). Conventionally it would be assumed that dest in destroy and destructible means the same thing (has ‘functional unity’, according to Skinner) even though it is never used by itself. Skinner believes the same thing is probably true of even smaller elements. The spin spit, speak and spew, he thinks, has to do with things coming out of the mouth, which is related to dispersal or radiation from a point in sputter, sprinkle, spray and spoke, spire and spur. And an -each ending is associated with noises in screech, preach and teach — hence, speech. The probability that children pick up or invent their own units of this kind is attested to by the fact that one of Skinner’s daughters, when 6, thought, reasonably enough, that -nese in Chinese and Japanese described something about the shape of eyes.

The big problem for Skinner (or, if you like, one of his big problems) is that he vacillates between leaving everything outside in the environment — as he would like to — and putting things inside the head of the learner — as he finds he has to. A simple example of the latter occurs in his discussion of metaphor. He notes that many dead metaphorical expressions such as ‘dull as ditchwater’ or ‘red tape’ are not creatively metaphorical because we use them automatically in accordance with convention, without having ever seen dull ditchwater or actual bureaucratic red tape tying up bundles of paperwork. However, his daughter, on tasting fizzy soda water for the first time, remarked that it tasted ‘like my foot’s asleep’ (1957, p. 92). This ‘raises several difficult problems in the analysis of behaviour’, because the tingling pins-and-needles sensation in the foot is not part of the outside environment which Skinner can observe, but inside his child’s head and out of his behaviourist reach. Skinner’s solution is to call it ‘a private stimulus’ and eventually (1957, pp. 130—46) private stimuli have to play a large part in generating ordinary ‘verbal behavior’. This leaves Skinner wide open to Chomsky’s charge, at the end of the egregious book review, that he is a closet mentalist. But if the rest of us are willing to come out and admit that speech is always controlled by internal mental structures of some kind, then there is no great difficulty in attributing some aspects of these mental structures to processes of learning.

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That in itself would not take us very far of course. It does not say much about what Skinner calls, in his own quotation marks, ‘putting in the grammar’ (1957, p. 337). Perhaps we should leave all this to the linguists, and I have no business discussing psycholinguistics here. But it is only fair that Skinner should get some credit for wrestling with the issues, even though he ended up tied in knots. He may not be the only one locked in a permanent half-Nelson by the fact that knowledge of the word (semantics) always seems to be wrapped around behind one’s neck when one tries to face up to ‘Order, design and “deliberate” composition’ (1957, p. 312). Skinner admits that it is usually crucial that the speaker has to ‘know what he is saying’, and that what is permanently or transiently ‘known’ is a separate part of the system which has control over the other sort of system which we describe as experiences of ‘knowing’. This he relates to ‘The notion of an inner self’, although of course his own way of trying to duck out of the painful bind this causes the radical behaviourist is to insist that all these things ought to be labelled in terms of responses, behaviours and private stimuli. For example, ‘There are at least two systems of responses, one based upon the other. The upper level can only be understood in terms of its relations to the lower’ (1957, p. 313, my italics). But the ‘systems of responses’ he is talking about here are all inside the head and are completely equivalent, in their explanatory role, to what other people would call semantic knowledge and grammatical rules, and in this sense are not a million miles away from what Chomsky used to refer to as ‘deep structure’ and ‘surface structure’. I wouldn’t want to have to say in either case exactly what the up/down dimension refers to, but the important point is surely that knowing what we are trying to say is somehow different from the techniques we use in actually saying it. Or, the processes of decoding what hits the ear or eye in listening or reading are separate skills or abilities, and different from understanding meaning.

The independent and sometimes arbitrary nature of ‘available grammatical practices’ Skinner illustrates by claiming that the same headline message would be communicated in English newspapers by ‘Death of the King’, and in American ones by ‘King Dies’. ‘Student Grants Halved’, ‘Government Halves Grants’ and ‘Grants: Government Halves’ would all give rise to the same sinking feeling.

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So, Skinner’s attempt to apply his approach to psychological questions to the contentious matter of human language is generally regarded as a failure, but in dealing with some of the complexities involved in this, he is not so green as he is cabbage-looking. His insistence on sticking to the formulae of private stimuli, and internal response systems, which all have to be discussed as if they were part of the outside environment or just another kind of overt behaviour, now seems ridiculous. It probably means he missed several crucial points, but it doesn’t mean he missed all the crucial points. He was perfectly aware that his children said new and strange things which they had never heard before, and that we have to explain how phrases, sentences (and books) are composed and created. If a single testable hypothesis can be inferred from all that he wrote, it is that all aspects of language use are gradually learned and are primarily a function of the experience of the individual in a society that uses language. It is ironic that although Chomsky, or the subject matter, beat Skinner in the theoretical wrestling match by several falls to nil, much current research in psycholinguistics ignores Chomsky’s advice that the important things are all innate and language acquisition might just as well be instantaneous. It concentrates instead on examining the very complex interactions in a baby’s life which seem indeed to be variables that affect the child’s acquisition of language (for instance, the details of the interactions between mothers and babies: see Coltheart and Harris, 1983; Harris et al., 1983).

It is sometimes pointed out that it is even more ironic that research which shows the importance of the attention and wishes of the child, and the gestures and eye movements of the mother, takes us back to the learning- theory account of language acquisition given in St Augustine’s Confessions, which has considerable priority over Skinner’s in descriptive detail as well as publication date (c. AD 400). Roughly translated, this reads:

 

    “I have since observed how it was that I initially learned to speak. It was not that I was actively taught words by any set method (as I was other things afterwards). But I myself tried to express my thoughts in order to get what I wanted and did this first by broken cries and various motions of my limbs. These did not express all that I willed or to whom I willed it, and by a specially evolved innate process I started to practise various sounds and
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    remember them. When my elders named something, and turned towards it when they spoke, I was able to see and remember that they made a certain utterance in connection with the object they were interested in. This was made plain by their bodily movements, which are, as it were, a universal natural language, in the form of expressions of the face, glances of the eyes, gestures of the limbs, and tone of voice, which all indicate expectancies of seeking and finding or avoiding and rejecting. And thus, by constantly hearing vocal elements, as they occurred in a variety of sentences, I gradually learned what the word-elements and their order stood for, and when I had practised making these sounds with my own mouth I was able to give utterance to my own ideas and wishes.” (Augustine, 1929, p.8).
 

This does not leave very much for Skinner to take the credit for, but there may even now be some mileage left in the notion that the motives and goals of the infant in listening and speaking are important in the context of the gradual learning of a particular first language. Such language starts with innate babbling and continues initially through the medium of social interactions, in which tone of voice, facial expression and other non-verbal activities are important props.

Skinner’s recommendations for cultural engineering

Although some flotsam and jetsam may be salvaged from the wreckage of his theory of language, and there is some demonstrable practical value in the application of behaviourist methodology in the mental health field and in special education, Skinner’s application of his ideas to the problems of society at large are almost completely worthless. In one sense Skinner could claim to have squarely confronted the question of applying experimental psychological principles to real life, since he has attempted to define the best future course for human civilization. However, in the light of what he has actually come up with, it perhaps would have been better for the reputation of the subject if he confined his attentions to the animal laboratory.

To put it bluntly, Skinner seems to be against almost all human

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emotions, and aspirations, ideals and values, as these are normally construed. One doubts if this is because Skinner himself is an unemotional and unfeeling person, because a reading of the two volumes of autobiography he has recently chosen to present us with suggests an intensely ambitious man with personal emotions of Dostoevskian intensity. Before taking up psychology he led a bohemian life in Greenwich Village, New York, trying to be a novelist, and the descriptions of his behaviours given in his autobiography do not suggest remoteness or detachment. For instance, Skinner tells us that after the break-up of an affair with a woman called Nedda, he used a red-hot wire to brand his own arm with the letter N, with such success that scars remained for decades afterwards.

In his utopian novel Walden Two (1948), and in essays on social philosophy such as Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1972), Skinner has discussed at length the problems of self-control and the necessity that we abolish ‘autonomous man’ by exercises in behavioural engineering. In his ideal world there would be no war, but neither would there be any emotions of personal triumph, or frustration, admiration of heroes, or envy or jealousy of others, or competitiveness or sorrow. It is in some ways reminiscent of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, which made use of Watson’s behaviourism, and Skinner seems to follow Watson not only in a contempt for democracy and free speech, but also in such details as ‘The creative artist may manipulate a medium until something of interest turns up’ (1972, p. 194; cf. Watson, 1931, p. xx).

In Walden Two, as in Brave New World, children are systematically conditioned in ways which the community regards as important, and for Skinner self-control is at a premium (‘The evolution of a culture is a gigantic exercise in self-control’: 1972, p. 215). This is done by giving 2- and 3-year-olds lollipops covered in sugar, with the instruction that if the lollipop is licked, it will be confiscated, but if they can keep it unlicked for the whole day, they will be allowed to eat it in the evening (1948, p.107). Older children return from exhausting hikes expecting a hot supper, but are then made to stand in front of their bowl of soup for five minutes without eating it. Later, the same thing is done with all jokes or talking or fidgeting forbidden, and after five minutes half the children, randomly chosen, are allowed to eat their soup so that the other half can stand stoically by, supposedly having envy and

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resentment stunted. Tolerance to other annoyances is built up ‘by having the children “take” a more and more painful shock’ and getting used to enjoying drinking their cocoa without any sugar (1948, p. xo8). In some ways, it is remarked, English public schools used to have quite good behavioural technologies. However, in Skinner’s utopian communities no team games are allowed, and no one is supposed to compete with anyone else. He makes idiosyncratic exceptions in the cases of tennis and chess, but here there are to be no tournaments. Serious pursuits such as playing string quartets and practising arts and crafts are, on the other hand, encouraged (occasional references are made to William Morris’s News from Nowhere).

There is of course no unadulterated fun, which Skinner is puritanically against As an undergraduate, I heard Skinner give a lecture in which he argued mainly against the evils of playing cards (which he did not consider a useful activity) and for making Dostoevsky incomprehensible to future generations. It has occurred to me once or twice since then that I, among other members of the audience, might have been better off spending more late nights studying, and fewer playing cards, but Skinner’s contempt for the study of literature and history is inexcusable, especially as he himself is well read, particularly in the literature of Utopias. The library at Walden Two is deliberately restricted to the two or three thousand books which the Planners believe to be the most elevating or useful: ‘We don’t attach economic or honorific value to education. . . we don’t need to teach “subjects” at all.. . . Our children aren’t neglected but they’re seldom, if ever, taught anything’ (1948, pp. 119—20).

In the real world, as opposed to the ideal one, Skinner is not quite so much opposed to formal education. But, as many critics have pointed out, Skinner’s ideal world is paternalistic and authoritarian from top to bottom — with the Skinner figure at the top, admittedly playing God. The serfs begin work at an early age, and because of their early conditioning they ‘get escape from the petty emotions which eat the heart out of the unprepared’ and ‘are spared the emotions characteristic of frustration and failure’. As compensation, lacking these distractions, ‘They get immeasurably increased efficiency’ (1948, p. 112). Only the Planners (mostly psychologists) at the top and the Managers in the middle have to suffer the trials and tribulations of administrative decision-

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making. If the system works, everyone has happiness and peace of mind, in moderation.

Another of the benefits of Walden Two is ‘the satisfaction of pleasant and profitable social relationships’ (1948, p. 112) but, as in other closed communities, these seem rather peculiar to outsiders. No one is ever allowed to say thank-you; it is customary to terminate conversations very abruptly if one becomes even slightly bored; and discussion of the Code, which stipulates these practices, is forbidden. The Code includes the Ten Commandments, and an unspecified number of other rules, which the Planners may change from time to time. ‘The rules are frequently brought to the attention of the members’ (p. 164). Some rules are posted (e.g. over the bathtubs), little pamphlets on jealousy and gluttony are distributed to 10-year- olds, and there are compulsory Sunday meetings with a sermon designed to maintain observance of the Code. Although this is borrowed from organized religion, and music is played to inspire group loyalty, and poetry is read to supply a common stock of literary allusions, religious belief as such is said simply to dwindle away, along with smoking and drinking, as a consequence of the earthly satisfactions of life in Walden Two.

One of the few aspects of social life which rings some sort of a bell today concerns the role of women. Skinner might receive high marks from some feminists, since the equality of women is rigorously enforced, even to the extent that they occupy equally with men the highest positions Skinner has to offer, as Planners. The role of women as wives and mothers is referred to as ‘a tradition of slavery’ going back thousands of years. This tradition is broken in Walden Two, since there are no homes or families in the normal sense. The children are all cared for by experts (of both sexes) instead of their mothers, and all prejudices regarding the proper occupations of the sexes are broken down. There is still marriage and child-bearing, with both taking place in the early teens to minimize the frustrations of adolescence. Couples require the permission of Managers to get married, and are supposed to accept refusal meekly if they are not well matched. It is anticipated that eventually the complete breakdown of the family unit will allow for selective breeding. With permission, marriages can be annulled and new ones contracted, but seductions and sexual jealousies are not allowed to disturb the tranquil and

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orderly anthill. Although deeply puritanical, Skinner has no plans to dispense with sexuality, as he proposes to dispense with team sports and popular entertainment, and in fact in a recent lecture on the management of ageing he suggested that older intellectuals should give up chess in order to preserve their diminished cognitive energies, and devote the time saved to whipping up their flagging sexual appetites by the perusal of pornography (Skinner, 1983).

Walden Two seems to combine all the worst elements of the Amish communities in Pennsylvania, the state where Skinner grew up, the early kibbutzim in Israel, medieval monasteries and British boarding schools. Skinner quite unrealistically presumes that his version could be sustained without any punitive measures or ideological indoctrination. If any of his 15-year-olds are tempted by the bright lights of the big city, he supposes that he will only have to show them a filthy flat in a slum, and ‘the home for indigents, the saloons, the jails’, and they will come rushing back. As he simply wishes away all human weakness and ambition, and steps aside from conventional politics, sociology and economics, his proposals in Walden Two are completely unrealistic — but then so are all Utopias, and all attempts to establish isolated communes and experimental societies.

Is there anything to be gained from studying Skinner’s proposals further? Perhaps we can dismiss at once what appear to be Skinner’s purely personal preferences — he advances no argument in favour of tennis, chess and pornography, as against, for instance, snooker, bridge and cookery books. Although serious critics of Skinner’s design often refer to it as ‘enlightened despotism’, part of the enlightenment seems to consist of a perverse distrust of some of the most harmless forms of human enjoyment of life, which owes more to the Pilgrim Fathers than to the psychological laboratory. Skinner doesn’t like leisure, since it is not serious, and people are likely to distract themselves with trivialities such as cricket or fiction:

 

    “In games and sports, contingencies are especially contrived to make trivial events highly important. People at leisure also become spectators, watching the serious behaviour of others, as in the Roman circus or a modem football game, or in the theatre or movies, or they listen to or read accounts of the serious
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    behaviour of other people, as in gossip or literature. Little of this behaviour contributes to personal survival or the survival of a culture.” (1972, p. 179)
 

So we will have none of this at Walden Two. ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are basic rights. But.. ‘they have only a minor bearing on the survival of a culture’ (1972, p. 180). Skinner really does mean, I think, in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, that we should do away with these basic rights as well. (In Walden Two the Skinner self-figure says that the Soviet experiment went wrong only because the Soviets dropped their attempts to abolish the family and religion, relied too much on propaganda and the worship of heroes, and still allowed the people in power to have the most wealth.)

But it would be a pity if, because of these truly appalling flaws in Skinner’s application of his psychological ideas to the design of cultures, we turned away entirely from the whole issue. Political decisions are made all the time about vital issues such as the nature of payment for industrial work, education from cradle to grave, and individual conformity to social, legal and ethical norms. There is no reason why we should not sometimes think about these in psychological terms, and in this area Skinner’s writings may at least stimulate opposing suggestions. There are also many smaller questions, especially to do with sections of the populations of mental hospitals, where piecemeal practical techniques on a small scale, which derive from some of Skinner’s suggestions, may provide useful help. Some of these will be discussed in the next chapter.

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End of Chaper 10 | Contents | Start of Chaper 11