A critique of psychologist B. F. Skinner’s Beyond Freedom and Dignity

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Tuesday, March 12, 2013

B. F. Skinner (1909-1990) was a prominent professor of psychology at Harvard (1958-1974) and a founder of Operant and Behavioral Psychology. I revisited his work while researching my paper,  “Violence, mental illness and the brain — A brief history of psychosurgery” for Surgical Neurology International (SNI).  Although more than 40 years have elapsed since publication of his book and my study of the subject in college, it deserves a reappraisal since history seems to repeat itself because man forgets, insisting on reinventing the wheel for his fellowman’s edification or his own vanity.B.F. Skinner

Besides, Skinner’s 1957 book, Verbal Behavior, was reprinted in 1992 and in the last decade has been resurgent in psychological research and applications. And even more revealing, in a 2002 survey Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century.

In his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), B.F. Skinner (photo, right) waged war against the cherished Western concept of individual freedom and the dignity of man. Again and again, he assailed and derided “the literature of freedom and dignity” and the concept of “autonomous man,” as enemies of progress. And yet his book was well received and became a best seller, presumably because the subtle use of behavioral controls and regimentation of society appealed to academics, as well as to authoritarian collectivists on the left and law and order “conservatives” on the right, in the wake of the upheaval and disruptive turbulence of the 1960s and the fads for novelty that followed in the 1970s.

Rene DescartesEarly in his book Skinner mentions Rene Descartes (1596-1650; photo, left), the philosopher who propounded behavior could be explained as human responses to environmental stimuli, man as a machine, a veritable mechanical automaton. This idea of automata came about after Descartes’ fateful visit to the Royal Gardens of France. Visitors entering the garden, Skinner now quotes Descartes, “necessarily tread on certain tiles or plates which are so disposed that if they approach a bathing Diana, they cause her to hide in the rose bushes, and if they try to follow her, they cause a Neptune to come forward to meet them, threatening them with his trident.” This was done by hidden valves and hydraulic machines triggered by the visitors treading on stepping-stones in their path. But this Cartesian explanation of man as a machine, said Skinner, was a simplistic notion, “a false scent from which a scientific analysis is only recovering.”[1]

It was Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936; photo, right) who was on the right track when he developed classical Ivan Pavlovconditioned reflexes in animals, experiments that developed into the “full-fledged stimulus-response psychology,” and which became the impetus for the future behavior modification techniques, which would, in turn, become the basis for Skinner’s concept of social contingencies of reinforcement for reshaping society.

Operant conditioning, according to B. F. skinner (1937) is a type of learning by which the behavior of individuals is modified by its consequences —i.e., contingencies of reward (positive) or punishment (negative) reinforcement. In classical conditioning, on the other hand, reflexive behavior is conditioned by antecedent conditions. Extinction of behavior occurs in previously conditioned responses, when the behavior no longer is positively or negatively reinforced in operant conditioning, or no longer preceded by a specific stimulus in classical conditioning.

Thus the environment can be manipulated, and operant psychology used, as a “technology of behavior” to redesign a new and "better" society; but problems remained for Skinner in how “to dispose of the autonomous man” mentality of Western culture that upheld traditions.

Obstacles have presented themselves in the form of traditionalists, theologians and philosophers, who have reconciled predestination with free will, just as the ancient Greeks explained away destiny and the will of the gods with personal freedom. Even Sigmund FreudSigmund Freud (1856-1939; photo, left), a determinist who believed that acts of the will and social changes were determined by preceding natural events, presented obstacles with his theory of the unconscious and mental processes. And it troubled Skinner that Freudian analysts "erroneously" continued to assure their patients of their own free will, as if they were “the architects of their own destinies.”[2]

According to Skinner, operant conditioning plays a larger role in the survival of organisms and evolution than the supposedly innate “fight or flight” reactions of animal or man. Over the centuries, contended Skinner, man has modified his behavior to escape or avoid aversive stimuli, such as pain or injury, which act as negative reinforcements, and in the way man has developed patterns of social organization, but there is no innate, aggressive instinct, as such, leading to fight or flight responses. In operant conditioning, a reward is positive reinforcement, while punishment is the negative reinforcement.  Man can be made to behave as society (government) wishes with the proper formulation of social contingencies of reinforcement; thus "it should be possible to design a Thomas H. Huxleyworld in which behavior likely to be punished seldom or never occurs."[3]

The defenders of freedom and dignity, Skinner correctly observed, object to solving problems in this fashion because of the impositions made against personal freedom and individual autonomy, not to mention the diminution of self-worth (dignity) in the "automatic goodness" generated by operant conditioning. Skinner saw nothing wrong with this, and neither did the British educator, Thomas Huxley (1825-1895; photo, right), grandfather of Aldous Huxley and famed defender of Darwinian evolution in England. Skinner thus quotes the Darwinian educator: "If some great power would agree to make me always think what is true and do what is right, on condition of being some sort of a clock and wound up every morning before I got out of bed, I should close up instantly with the offer."[4]

But Skinner also had opponents who had already pointed out that goodness, like dignity and liberty, waxes as visible controls wane. Skinner bemoaned the opinion of John Stuart Mill John Stuart Mill(1806-1873; photo, left), the British economist and freedom philosopher (but who later turned to utilitarianism), when Mill declared, “the only goodness worthy of the name was displayed by a person who behaved well although it was possible for him to behave badly and that only such person was free."[5]

The environment is all. Juvenile delinquency and alcoholism do not improve by raising the level of responsibility affirmed Skinner, "it is the environment which is responsible for the objectionable behavior, and it is the environment, not some attribute of the individual which must be changed."[6] Moreover, in aggressive or sexual behavior, "what must be changed is not responsibility of autonomous man, but the conditions, environmentally or genetically, of which a person's behavior is a function."[7]

Freedom defenders should realize that citizens are already under strong societal "controls," and people, including children, get along with others because they are forced to do so, not because of inner goodness, but because they are under the control of social contingencies of reinforcement, "and in many ways [citizens in democratic societies] are more effectively controlled than those in a police state."[8]

Freedom then, in Skinner's world of operant psychology, is a deceptive and dangerous illusion. And for him a supposedly permissive government, said to govern least (e.g., laissez faire and the invisible hand of the free market) is a government that "leaves control to other sources." Skinner thus expounded, "a free economy does not mean the absence of economic controls because no economy is free as long as goods and money remain reinforcing."[9] If an unplanned economy and the invisible hand of the free market have produced economic prosperity, political freedom, and advances in science and technology, intimated Skinner, "there is no virtue in an accident as such. The unplanned also goes wrong."[10] As can be deduced by his opinions and logic, Skinner made no quantitative or qualitative distinctions between compulsory, authoritarian government controls and the voluntary interactions of the free market, as if there was social, economic, political, and moral neutrality between the two systems!

William JamesNevertheless, a better world can be designed to make people do what they ought to do, but social contingencies must be changed for political ones, using "stronger reinforcements with the sharpening of the contingencies." Old controls may be reactionary, but even worse is any move toward fewer controls and more individualism and freedom.[11] Strangely enough, while proscribing individualism as the enemy, Skinner in chapter 6, "Values," used altruism and "for the good of others" as examples of motivational failures, as if they were the only paradigms upon which man is motivated to work for societal goals. Obviously, this is a straw man argument to beat on senselessly, because there are other ethical and moral paradigms used by good, moral citizens — namely, idealism, pragmatism, and individualism.[12] The existence of the latter two ethical paradigms should be completely obvious to Skinner because William James’ (1842-1910; photo, right) legacy was known to the author as a fellow psychologist at Harvard only a generation earlier, and James was the well-known founder of pragmatism as an ethical philosophy; and individualism was Skinner's unrelenting nemesis.

George OrwellWe must forget Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis, the Interpretation of Dreams, and unconscious mental processes, the superego (conscience), the ego, and the id; forget George Orwell’s (1930-1950; photo, left) Animal Farm, 1984, and other literary masterpieces describing the evils of totalitarian controls and the authoritarian, collectivist utopias; and forget Dante's Inferno and Milton's Paradise Lost, and even Dostoyevsky's Notes, Crime and Punishment, and other literary admonitions of the traditionalist classics about the frailty of man and the need for religious morality. Instead, pay heed and take steps to improve society and redesign culture, using contingencies of reinforcement following the path of Plato's ideal Republic, Robert Owens' New Harmony utopian community in 1821 Indiana, Skinner's Aldous Huxleyown behavioral utopia, Walden 2 — and of course Aldous Huxley’s (1894-1963; photo, right) ultimate (dys)topia, Brave New World (1932).

Skinner reassures us the relationship between the controller and the controlled is reciprocal, reminding us "we must not overlook the control exerted by the pigeons" [upon the scientist in the laboratory]! And that ultimately, because of the reciprocal relationships, "in a very real sense, then the slave controls the slave driver." Once again, we are reminded, despite what we have been led to believe by the literature of freedom and dignity, that George Orwell's teachings of the Ministry of Truth are veracities: "Weakness is Strength"; "War is Peace"; and "Freedom is Slavery"! (photo, left below)

1984 slogansPeople are not compassionate because of autonomous man but because of the contingencies of reinforcement from the environment that generate benevolent behavior and "makes [controlled people] wise and compassionate."[13] What is needed is not more religious teachings or invocations to civic duties and responsibilities, but "more 'intentional' control, not less, and this is an important [social] engineering problem." Moreover, "adventitious" contingencies from accidental (non-intentional) reinforcement can support existing behaviors and bring in "superstition" with disastrous consequences for unplanned cultures.[14] Suffice to say, Skinner was terrified by the literature of freedom and dignity and the free, autonomous individual in an unplanned society. And so Skinner was compelled to condemn such literature that threatened the evolution of culture towards a truly utopian society to be created by the new controllers in his own image.

And yet it is, in part, social contingencies of reinforcement dreamed up by demagogues and pandering politicians and constructed by social engineers, playing the role of the experimenters in Skinner's planned society, that have created the dependency and entitlement mentality of LBJthe welfare state, the lowering of standards in the public education system, the lack of innovation, and other iniquities that plague American society in the 21st century. It was in Skinner's own time that a planned society was promoted with determined intensity and government power — i.e., the great economic experiments of the Great Society of President Lyndon B. Johnson (U.S. President 1963-1968; photo, right). The Great Society led to or at least intensified the turbulence of the 1960s, which in turn led to the false premises and general solutions of Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

I write “general solutions” because Skinner never tells us what contingencies of reinforcement he would use in different situations, for example, workers who are indolent; people who refuse to work because it’s easier to receive unemployment benefits or welfare checks than working; students who refuse to study; taxpayers who can no longer afford to pay their taxes; criminals who refuse to obey laws and become repeat offenders, etc. We must assume Skinner would let the planners design the contingencies of reinforcement. But if history is any guide, the planners and social engineers have already been busy and their labor has borne bitter fruit as we have seen with the myriad of social programs, alphabet soup agencies, and the general growth of government since the days of the Great Society.   

Free market economists have taught us that what we subsidize, we get more of, but to no avail. Government has expanded the rolls of the dependent population by positively reinforcing idleness, corruption, mendacity, single families, broken families, crime, and even the poverty they had intended to eradicate. The Great Society and the myriad of government programs in its wake were designed by the social engineers to eliminate poverty and eliminate inequalities but they have had unintended consequences despite government planning and good intentions. More people are dependent on government than ever. And so the ranks of the productive citizens in the U.S., for the first time ever, is shrinking, while the dependent population and the welfare rolls have swollen exponentially. Skinner should have foreseen this, and yet he wanted the state to arrogate itself even more power, as to reconstruct culture and build a supposedly better society!

And so Skinner believed that more "progress" needed to be made in the right direction, beginning with the 19th century notion of man as a machine, and to do this, the abolition of the autonomous man —“which has long been overdue” — needed also to be accomplished.[15] The operant psychology laboratory needed to further analyzed man's behavior in mechanical terms and create new technologies of behavior. In his titanic battle against autonomous man and literature (and the defenders) of freedom and dignity, Skinner wanted to eradicate the old mores and traditions of Western civilization, eliminate liberty, as outdated, and ultimately replace the autonomous man for the behaviorally conditioned, automated man. Legions of automatons could then be created for the state, operant automatons, without free will, who do as they are programmed and respond only to planned environmental contingencies and positive and negative reinforcements.

Stalin and his gulagsSkinner mentioned a few little utopias that were created over the centuries and admitted they invariably failed, but only because the contingencies of reinforcement were not properly planned. And he is careful not to mention the mendacious socialist workers' paradises, the horrendous planned collectivist societies of his own time, the failed totalitarian experiments of Nazi Germany, the gulags of the Soviet Union (photo, left), the laogai slave labor camps of China, the re-education facilities of Cuba and North Korea, etc., where the new socialist man failed to materialize, but in his stead millions of his fellow citizens perished — in the killing fields of their own governments.

I am not implying Skinner had conscious totalitarian designs, but I am asserting that ideas have consequences and that history is a better guide than good intentions. As C. S. Lewis C.S. Lewis(1898-1963; photo, right), who Skinner cited in a different context as a defender of the literature of freedom and dignity, once wrote: "The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid 'dens of crime' that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labor camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voice."[16] We can more apropos substitute Skinner’s well-equipped operant laboratories for the “well-lighted offices” for the same effect.

Skinner's book was a sensation. It had come out at the right time, in an impressionable country, in a receptive academic world. As time passed, the novelty and shock of his ideas abated. Ronald Reagan presided during the 1980s bringing about a new optimism to America. The Berlin Wall came tumbling down in 1989. And the world rejoiced. But despite the collapse of Soviet communism in 1991 and the consequent, incredible amount of freedom gained and exercised since then in large parts of the world, Americans, ironically, have lost a considerable amount of freedom. This has been the case, in part, because of the 9-11 tragedy and "the war on terror," but also because of the insatiable growth of government at the expense of political liberty and economic freedom.  And many Americans have not only given up liberty for security but also a considerable amount of dignity, succumbing to the positive social reinforcements and allure of government dependency, wasted idleness, entitlements, becoming the new unintended automatons of the 21st century.


1. Skinner BF. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971, p. 14-15.
2. Ibid., p. 18.
3. Ibid., p. 59-61.
4. Ibid., p. 62.
5. Ibid., p. 66.
6. Ibid., p. 70.
7. Ibid., p. 71.
8. Ibid., p. 85-86.
9. Ibid., p. 92-93.
10. Ibid., p. 154.
11. Ibid., p. 113-114.
12. Ibid., p. 110-120.
13. Ibid., p. 162-163.
14. Ibid., p. 168-169.
15. Ibid., p. 191.
16. Lewis CS. The Screwtape Letters. New York: MacMillan Publishing Company, 1961, p. x.

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is Clinical Professor of Surgery (Neurosurgery, ret.) and Adjunct Professor of Medical History (ret.) Mercer University School of Medicine. He is an Associate Editor in Chief and a World Affairs Editor of Surgical Neurology International (SNI), and an Ex-member of the Injury Research Grant Review Committee of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 2002-05; Former Editor-in-Chief of the Medical Sentinel (1996-2002), Editor Emeritus, the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons (AAPS); Author, Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995); Medical Warrior: Fighting Corporate Socialized Medicine (1997); and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002).

Copyright ©2013 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D.

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Comments on this post

Conditioning in animal vs. human

Classical and operant conditioning do work in the laboratory when you use them to train animals. In graduate school, my lab was interested in the psycho-physiological bases of memory under the assumption that the hippocampus is an indexing system which points to where in the cortex a particular memory is represented by multiple folded proteins. It is more than that, but it is that. To investigate this, it is essential to condition both control animals and those with a functional or structural lesion made in the hippocampus.

That suited me well, because now having a great interest in early diagnosis of non senile dementias by MRI, in the mouse models of Alzheimer's my group found as early as 2004 that we could differentiate the AD mouse from the normal non-transgenic mouse if the proper pulse MRI sequence was applied. Of course, we detected changes in the hippocampus (and a few other structures). However, by the time the MRI showed it (9 months), given that the mouse only lives two years, the current experimental drugs for AD would already be close to worthless as the patient would be too old for them to make much difference. I believe I can show it within a few weeks of birth, and that means if the drugs are taken on a regular basis starting in those that young, that the person destined to develop AD would never manifest it.

As for conditioning, there are a couple of really good reasons why you can never apply what you observe in a conditioned animal to a human. Let's just say it's related to the way the white matter of a higher mammal (non human) connects the sensory and associative cortical areas so the animal brain cannot allow for more flexible and abstract thinking. Mammalian brains are all strikingly similar in their basic plan, but I believe the key difference is in the way the white matter links grey associative areas.

So, yes, only a fool would think they could condition humans like they do to rats in the laboratory.--- ARB

Mind or matter?

I enjoyed reading the point of view expressed in this review of Skinner's book, "Beyond Freedom and Dignity." I learned more about B.F. Skinner than I ever knew about his behaviorist psychology. I believe that the "flight-or-fight" instinct is an important mechanism in people's behavior and I disagree with Skinner that operant conditioning should be paramount in human behavior. The unconscious that Skinner largely disregards is fundamental in formulating human action. Individual autonomy should be respected by government authority as long as the individual respects the law and does not infringe on the rights of others.

Verbal behavior

I must comment on the Skinner Essay. Skinner paraphrased part of an Essay by Alain Robbe-Grillet (writing in the Evergreen Review). Don't ask me in which book*, I read all of Skinner's writings many years ago. BFS wanted to purge the language of human behavior (then called psychology) of mythological references and ARG wanted to purge the novel of the appearance of "depth." ARG's parents were French Fascists who volunteered him to work in the German armament industry during the Third Reich. His rhetoric was right out of WWII Fascism. I doubt if Fred [B.F. Skinner] was aware of this.

Fred appears to be a Determinist but, that is deceptive. Fred suffered from Zwangsneurose-Phobie [Obsessional Neurosis] and claimed that he had cured himself of this by his self-analysis. He did not cure himself (Louis Breger: Freud — Darkness in the Midst of Vision). All of Freud's theories, especially his Sexual Drive Theory with its Ödipuskomplex Search are his desperate OCD attempts to gain control of his (and Mankind's) unconscious brain processes (and as modern neuroscience has taught us, that is most of the brain's processes). — Ralph Bollweg

* Perhaps it was Verbal Behavior (1957). According to David Kronemyer in an essay, "Charles Darwin and the 'New Darwinists ' ” (October 14th, 2011), Noam Chomsky (1959) criticized B. F. Skinner’s book Verbal Behavior (1957) in which BFS "held that language is learned from use and context, just like any other functional behavior."

According to Kronemyer: "Chomsky’s critique widely was regarded as devastating to Skinner’s position, for many of the same reasons why the cognitive theories of the 1960s overtook behaviorist theories of the 1950s. Weaned on the former, I used to believe that Chomsky was right and Skinner was wrong." — MAF

Modernism & fascism

...I very much agree with Iain McGilchrist’s statement* in “The Master and his Emissary” about the connection between Modernism and Fascism. I also think that though Fred Skinner was very well read, he was also very naïve.
Thanks, Ralph Bollweg


* We suppose you mean: "...An unfaltering belief in the future complemented an uncompromising scorn for the past. Above all there was a belief in the sheer power of the human will, in our power to shape our destiny. It is not, I think, by accident that the age of modernism also saw the rise of totalitarian ideologies in Russia, Germany and Italy.

"Nazism is the 'very epitome of the modern,' writes the historian of modernism, Modris Eksteins; 'the modernism of Nazism was unmistakable...in lockstep in the modern era with cultural adventurism...' Cultural revolution and totalitarianism are spiritual allies" — from The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. by Iain McGilchrist (2009).