Skinner Story -- Apochryphal? : LUSENET : History & Theory of Psychology : One Thread

Several faculty members (me included) have heard the story about a group of students "reinforcing" a social psychology instructor in such a way so as to literally move him around the classroom during the course of a semester. Supposedly, he had expressed anti-Skinnerian views and this was the students' response. The story came up in class recently and we got wondering if it falls into the category of "urban legend." No faculty members I asked could cite a source. Can anyone comment on the truth of the story? John Hogan

-- John D. Hogan (, May 04, 2004


I heard a different version of this story, in which it was Skinner himself who was "pushed" into one corner of a room in which he was lecturing by students paying close attention when he moved to one side of the room, and ignoring him, reading newspapers, etc. when he moved to the other side of the room. I think I first heard it as an undergraduate at McGill in the 1980s. I assume it is mythological, based (as I think most urban legends are) on someone's "Wouldn't it be interesting if...." being misheard or misremembered as an veritable account of events.

-- Christopher Green (, May 09, 2004.

Several versions of this have been reported for years. None have been verified. The story passes a common test for urban legends, the FOAF (friend of a friend) component. That is, it never happened to the teller, but to a friend of theirs. It is also listed as a legend on with a few book references as w

-- John Zimny (, May 09, 2004.

This story was told in full by B.F. Skinner himself during a lengthy colloquy with Carl Rogers at the University of Minnesota in 1962 that lasted several days before an audience of about 500. This encounter -- very valuable for people who want hear Skinner himself put his basic epistemological and ethical views in more accessible form, while he is personally criticized by Carl Rogers (they remained good friends nonetheless) -- is still available in many college libararies and from an outfit in Connecticut called Audio Forum. It is on six audiocassettes, and the audio quality is not good, but it is still a valuable and enlightening cultural document.

The story Skinner himself tells humorously in answer to a question from Carl Rogers wondering about the truth of the incident -- a question essentially the same as the one at the top of this thread, except that it conflates the two stories Skinner procedes to tell into one. Skinner tells how a professor who was rather agitated by Skinner was manipulated by some of his bahavioristic students (with Skinner himself not present) with occasional approving nods so that by the end of the sequence he is in a contorted pose, bending backwards and gazing over his shoulder rather awkwardly at his class.

On the audio cassette, Skinner tells the story with obvious relish and enjoyment and the audience laughs along with him. Then he tells the other in which he himself is the prankster: at a panel discussion in which he had participated, another renowned expert on human behavior of the 1960s was "talking too much for good communication," so Skinner glanced at him every time he gestured agitatedly with one of his hands toward Skinner. By the end of the discussion, the psychologist's wrist watch nearly flew off his wrist he was gesticulating so wildly, says Skinner.

In his autobiograpy, Fred Skinner revealed the identity of his victim: Erich Fromm.

-- Louis B. Massano (, June 19, 2004.

In the interests of clarity, and also in order not to slight posterity in regard to this very significant anecdote, I decided to listen again to the recording I mentioned in my post of 19 June. I discoverd that I had remembered Skinner telling the two stories in the reverse order to the one in which he actually recounted them. The exchange between Rogers and Skinner I referred to begins on the reverse of the 4th of 6 cassettes covering their 1962 Minnesota encounter.

Throughout this several-day-long encounter Carl Rogers is eager to point out that inner experience ("the subjective") is a valid dimension for psychology, more so even than the behaviorist's "objective," "from the outside" approach. He is also eager to put Skinner "on the couch" and to convict him of that Freudian venial sin, the defense mechanism of intellectualization, as well of lacking -- along with his whole behaviorist's worldview -- in what the existentialists (existentialism as a philosophy just past its peak in popularity at the time) call "authenticity" --- of being what Holden Caulfield, the fictionalized teenage protagonist of a popular novel of that era, "The Catcher in the Rye" (by J.D. Salinger) would call a "phony." "Everything in your [utopian novel, "Walden Two"] has a 'pseudo' quality to it," Carl Rogers declares at one point.

So Rogers starts off by reciting a story he has heard: A professor [Rogers didn't know his name] earlier on in the history of behaviorism had investigated the operant reinforcement of verbal behavior [was Rogers implying that this professor is Skinner?]. One day, his students decided to surreptiously operantly condition a certain gesture of the professor's by noding approvingly when he gestured that way. Then when they had succeeded, that told him of their prank and professor and students had a good laugh together. Rogers goes on to say that what is significant about the story is that the approving nods used by the students became worthless as soon as they pointed out to the professor that they were using them to play a prank on him. Rogers then asserts that this illustrates the priority of "subjective" experience -- a world which is his own province as a psychotherapist , and one which Skinner, who deals with animals, is not acquainted with (or so Rogers claims). Skinner later on points out that it's true that the approval of the students had become devalued, but that such a devaluing doesn't invalidate the observed scientific fact of conditioned operant reinforcement. But first he points out that the anecdote really combines two stories, the first of which involves a certain "Dr. X," a psychiatrist (not a psychologist, as I claimed in my 19 June post), with whom he, Skinner was participating in a round-table discussion, and who was "talking a little too much for good communication." Skinner decides to shape a chopping response in Dr. Xs left hand, but first alerts a colleague with a note passed down the table saying,"Watch Dr. X's left hand; I'm going to shape chopping response." Skinner proceded to do this, he relates, by mostly ignoring Dr. X but still gazing at him out of the corner of his eye in order to sight anything that approximated an up or down movement of his left arm. Whenever Dr. X's left hand went up, Skinner looked deadpan, but as it went down in a chopping motion Skinner turned to him and nodded. Skinner says that by the time he was finished, in about 5 minutes, Dr. X was "holding onto his wristwatch" as it slipped off his left hand. Skinner says a note came back with the message, "Let's see you extinguish it!" but confesses that he could not. After some laughs from the audience (Rogers can also be heard laughing mischievously as Skinner tells the stories), Skinner passes on to the second anecdote. He had lectured at a midwest university where there were students sympathetic to Skinner's views. They had a professor who had read Joseph Wood Krutch (a prominent humanist and critic and an anti-Skinnerian who'd published in 1954 a tract against behavioral science called "The Measure of Man," among other attacks. Krutch died in 1970, the year before Skinner published Beyond Freedom and Dignity. ) tell them that Skinner was a menace, and that as long as he was in his academic "ivory tower," there was no problem, but that if Skinner's views ever showed any signs of having a practical effects, the professor would favor dire action against Skinner. The students, according to Skinner, resented this professor and decided to reinforce him with approving nods and smiles for approaching the right hand corner of the teacher's platform. After this the signal went out to move him toward facing the blackboard. They did this using the shaping methods Skinner used on Dr. X -- differential reinforcement and successive approximation -- and shaped the professor's behavior until he was teetering on the edge of the right hand side of the platform by looking deadpan until he moved in the general direction of the corner of the platform, then smiling or noding approvingly. Skinner said that the professor teetered for a while as the students turned deadpan to move him back to the blackboard. Then as he moved back they began to smile again. Skinner concludes by saying that by the time the students were through, the professor was finishing the day's class facing the blackboard and lecturing backward over his shoulder! (Skinner retells the first story in volume three of his autobiography, "A Matter of Consequences," pp. 150 to 151. The incident happened at a round table meeting at Robert Hutchins' Fund for the Republic in New York City, sometime around 1958. Here B.F. Skinner reveals the identity of "Dr. X": it was Erich Fromm, who, Skinner writes "seemed to have something to say about almost everything but with little enlightenment. When he began to argue that people were not pigeons, I decided that something had to be done." The techiques of "shaping" (aka "differentiation") Skinner and the students make use of in the two stories are detailed in Sets 15 and 16 of "The Analysis of Behavior," an introductory text written like a teaching machine program, written by Skinner and James G. Holland in 1961. Set 15, "Principles of Shaping New Behavior," begins with a page on "How to Train a Dog to Touch a Doorknob with Its Nose" -- the methods used are identical to the ones needed to train a college professor to teeter at the edge of a classroom platform!

-- Louis B. Massano (, June 21, 2004.

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