by B.F. Skinner: When I was a little kid, I had a weird babysitter. She was very pale and thin, with dark hair and a tentative smile. She wore blouses with big trumpet sleeves, out of which poked her bony white wrists and elbows. She seldom made physical contact. She lived just up the street from us, and I heard people say she’d been “raised in a Skinner Box” by her psychologist father.
Ever since then, I’ve wondered: What was the Skinner Box? And were babies really raised in boxes?
Top image: Air Crib photo by Nicholas Hess and Tracy Woodard.
Well, sort of. It turns out that there were two very different things that the famous psychologist B.F. Skinner did. On the one hand, he created gray metal boxes with levers and electrified floors, in which he tested rats and other creatures, giving them rewards on an irregular basis to train them to exhibit certain behaviors that weren’t natural. He trained pigeons to play ping pong. Some of his students trained a pig to vacuum-clean, and a rabbit to pick up a coin with its mouth. His daughter trained a cat to play the piano. (Really.) He developed his theories of “operant conditioning,” in which any behavior can be trained using variable reinforcement.
And meanwhile, Skinner also invented the “air crib,” which he tested on his daughter Deborah, and which also came to be referred to as a “Skinner Box.” As Marc N. Richelle explains in his book B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal:
In 1943, the Skinners decided to have a second child. After his wife had remarked that she somewhat dreaded the constraints of the first year, Skinner decided to do something to alleviate the burden. He analysed the ways babies were cared for and considered possible simplifications, while improving comfort, social interchange and the mother’s satisfaction. The solution was the aircrib, or “baby-tender” as he called it. This was a spacious compartment, mounted on a wheeled table, with a large glass window, temperature and air control, in which the baby could stay naked and comfortable, kept in the presence of the mother wherever she was working in the house. A strip of sheeting covered over a canvas, which served as a mattress; this could be moved to a clean section as needed by simple cranking. The baby, rather than suffering from excessive cover or from being wet, or simply from being awake and alone, could move freely, in an optimally stable atmosphere, and in permanent visual contact with the mother at times when the latter was busy and would not be able to pick the baby up….
A few parents adopted the device for their own child, but it never became really popular. It had a period of renewed success — a moderate one, since only a few hundred units were sold — between 1957 and 1967 when they were produced by a small company. Occasionally, a former “box-raised baby” would be in a Skinner audience and would come up to him with a happy smile at the end of the lecture.
Skinner wrote about his invention for the Ladies Home Journal’s October 1945 edition, and his article was given the unfortunate title “Baby in a Box.” (You can read his article in its entirety here.) He describes the temperature-controlled box in which the naked baby sits, and then adds that the box does include some sort of training:
A wider range and variety of behavior are also encouraged by the freedom from clothing. For example, our baby acquitted an amusing, almost apelike skill in the use of her feet. We have devised a number of toys, which are occasionally suspended from the ceiling of the compartment. She often plays with these with her feet alone and with her hands and feet in close cooperation.
One toy is a ring suspended from a modified music box. A note can be played by pulling the ring downward, and a series of rapid jerks will produce Three Blind Mice. At seven months our baby would grasp the ring in her toes, stretch out her leg and play the tune with a rhythmic movement of her foot.
We are not especially interested in developing skills of this sort, but they are valuable for the baby because they arouse and hold her interest. Many babies seem to cry from sheer boredom-their behavior is restrained and they have nothing else to do. In our compartment, the waking hours are invariably active and happy ones.
In his October 1945 article, Skinner also responds to the critics who say that in his box, the baby “would be socially starved and robbed of the affection and mother love, which she needs.” He retorts:
This has simply not been true. The compartment does not ostracize the baby. The large window is no more of a social barrier than the bars of a crib. The baby follows what is going on in the room, smiles at passers-by, plays “peek-a- boo” games, and obviously delights in company. And she is handled, talked to, and played with whenever she is changed or fed, and each afternoon during a play period, which is becoming longer as she grows older. The fact is that a baby will probably get more love and affection when it is easily cared for.
You can decide for yourself whether this set-up would be good for a baby — as compared, say, with the current vogue for “baby bjorn” style papooses and things. It definitely feels very 1950s and possibly a bit too sterile and mechanistic — even if it’s not true that the babies were being trained or experimented on in the same way that Skinner’s rats were.
In any case, rumors spread like wildfire that Skinner had kept his daughter in a box and done experiments on her, and that she’d turned psychotic as a result. Or even, that she’d committed suicide. In his 1983 autobiography, Skinner complains about a whisper campaign, which he feels “fostered by clinical psychologists who found it useful in criticizing behavior therapy.” His healthy, happy daughter was constantly surprised to hear that she was dead or insane. And Skinner reports that his phone rang just as he was falling asleep, with a young man’s voice asking him, “Professor Skinner, is it true you kept your daughter in a cage?”
In fact, Deborah is fine — she lives in London, where she’s an artist. And by all accounts, she and her father got along well until his death in 1990.
Beyond Freedom and Dignity
So what’s going on here? Skinner was a polarizing figure, and people seized on the “baby in a box” thing as an easy way of discrediting him, in a nutshell.
As Lauren Slater documents in her book Opening Skinner’s Box, Skinner’s actual research illuminated something basic about behavior: that we respond better to variable reinforcement than to regular rewards. If we only get the reward every once in a while, we will continue to exhibit the behavior that leads to the reward for way longer, and we’ll be way more addicted to it. Skinner also seemed to show that all sorts of behaviors — not just involuntary ones like salivating, like Pavlov’s dogs — could be triggered in response to rewards or stimuli.
In other words, Skinner showed that creatures (possibly including people) are not separable from environments. We behave in certain ways in response to the rewards we receive, and — as anybody who’s ever has a compulsive behavior like playing a game all night will attest — we’re capable of behaviors that we don’t entirely control. This, in itself, is a threat to many of us who want to believe that humans are ultimately masters of our destiny rather than products of our circumstances.
But then Skinner went further, in a couple of ways. First, the “air crib” was just one of the ways that he publicly advocated for a more scientific approach to life. When that same daughter, Deborah, went to school, Skinner decided that old-fashioned education methods were too inefficient — children who gave the right answer weren’t rewarded fast enough to reinforce the lesson. So he came up with a plan for “programmed instruction,” where flesh-and-blood teachers could be supplemented by, in essence, teaching machines.
As Alexandra Rutherford explains in Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s:
Programmed instruction was an approach in which students were exposed to course material in small incremental steps via frames presented in a box-like apparatus. They were required to generate a response to a question about the material, and could then immediately compare their response to the right answer. The presentation of the material was finely tuned to ensure very few mistakes, on the principal that getting the right answer — right away — was maximally reinforcing.
In other words, the kids would be steered to the right answer about the material they’d just read, and then would be “rewarded” by realizing they’d gotten it right, thus encouraging them to keep getting right answers. Some people worried that by trying to shape students’ answers and reward them for responding the right way, Skinner’s devices would encourage conformity and discourage independent thought.
But Skinner didn’t just advocate for more “scientific” methods of child-rearing — he also wrote some far-reaching works of philosophy that argued for a utopian vision of a world controlled by behavioral scientists rather than politicians. He wrote a number of books, notably Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which argued that to solve problems like pollution, overpopulation and the threat of nuclear war, we need to adjust human behavior.
It’s like one half Asimov’s psychohistory, one half benign totalitarianism. Here’s Skinner, from Beyond Freedom and Dignity:
What we need is a technology of behavior. We could solve our problems quickly enough if we could adjust the growth of the world’s population as precisely as we adjust the course of a spaceship, or improve agriculture and industry with some of the confidence with which we accelerate high-energy particles, or move toward a peaceful world with something like the steady progress with which physics has approached absolute zero (although both remain presumably out of reach.) But a behavioral technology comparable in power and precision to physical and biological technology is lacking, and those who do not find the very possibility ridiculous are more likely to be frightened than reassured. This is how far we are from “understanding human issues” in the sense in which physics and biology understand their fields, and how far we are from preventing the catastrophe toward which the world seems to be inexorably moving.
There’s something irreducibly Space Age about Skinner and his preoccupation with finding scientific ways to run everything. He contributed more than most people realize to our understanding of behavior — and his focus on rewards rather than punishments as a means of shaping behavior was actually quite benign. Some people are even trying to bring back the “Air Crib” for their babies nowadays, in fact. But still, you can kind of see why some of Skinner’s ideas creeped people out.
Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s by Alexandra Rutherford
B.F. Skinner: A Reappraisal by Marc N. Richelle
Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments Of The Twentieth Century by Lauren Slater
“The Ultimate Challenge: Prove B. F. Skinner Wrong” by Paul Chance, Behav Anal.2007 Fall; 30(2): 153–160.
The Psychology of B F Skinner by Kyle E. Ferguson and William O’Donohue