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B.F. SKINNER, works and life

I was not a Lab Rat--Deborah Skiner

Deborah & Yvonne
deborah-skinner-crib.jpg

http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/healthmindandbody/story/0,6000,1168052,00.html

 

Friday March 12, 2004, The Guardian
 
I was not a lab rat

A new book has rekindled old rumours that renowned psychologist BF Skinner used his baby daughter in his experiments. Stop this rubbish about me and my dad, says Deborah Skinner Buzan

By the time I had finished reading the Observer this week, I was shaking. There was a review of Lauren Slater's new book about my father, BF Skinner. According to Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, my father, who was a psychologist based at Harvard from the 1950s to the 90s, "used his infant daughter, Deborah, to prove his theories by putting her for a few hours a day in a laboratory box . . . in which all her needs were controlled and shaped". But it's not true. My father did nothing of the sort. I have heard the lies before, but seeing them in black and white in a respected Sunday newspaper felt as if somebody had punched me hard in the stomach. Admittedly, the facts of my unusual upbringing sound dodgy: esteemed psychologist BF Skinner, who puts rats and pigeons in experimental boxes to study their behaviour, also puts his baby daughter in a box. This is good fodder for any newspaper. There was a prominent Harvard psychologist whose daughter was psychotic and had to be institutionalised; but it wasn't my father.

The early rumours were simple, unembellished: I had gone crazy, sued my father, committed suicide. My father would come home from lecture tours to report that three people had asked him how his poor daughter was getting on. I remember family friends returning from Europe to relate that somebody they had met there had told them I had died the year before. The tale, I later learned, did the rounds of psychology classes across America. One shy schoolmate told me years later that she had shocked her college psychology professor, who was retelling the rumour about me, by banging her fist on her desk, standing up and shouting, "She's not crazy!"  

Slater's sensationalist book rehashes some of the old stuff, but offers some rumours that are entirely new to me. For my first two years, she reports, my father kept me in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and punishments. Then there's the story that after my father "let me out", I became psychotic. Well, I didn't. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana. 

My early childhood, it's true, was certainly unusual - but I was far from unloved. I was a much cuddled baby. Call it what you will, the "aircrib" ,"baby box", "heir conditioner" (not my father's term) was a wonderful alternative to the cage-like cot. My father's intentions were simple, and based on removing what he and my mother saw as the worst aspects of a baby's typical sleeping arrangements: clothes, sheets and blankets. These not only have to be washed, but they restrict arm and leg movement and are a highly imperfect method of keeping a baby comfortable. My mother was happy. She had to give me fewer baths and of course had fewer clothes and blankets to wash, so allowing her more time to enjoy her baby. I was very happy, too, though I must report at this stage that I remember nothing of those first two and a half years. I am told that I never once objected to being put back inside. I had a clear view through the glass front and, instead of being semi-swaddled and covered with blankets, I luxuriated semi-naked in warm, humidified air. The air was filtered but not germ-free, and when the glass front was lowered into place, the noise from me and from my parents and sister was dampened, not silenced. I loved my father dearly. He was fantastically devoted and affectionate. But perhaps the stories about me would never have started if he had done a better job with his public image. He believed that, although our genes determine who we are, it is mostly our environment that shapes our personality. A Time Magazine cover story ran the headline "BF Skinner says we can't afford freedom". All he had said was that controls are an everyday reality - traffic lights and a police force, for instance - and that we need to organise our social structures in ways that create more positive controls and fewer aversive ones. As is clear from his utopian novel, Walden Two, the furthest thing from his mind was a totalitarian or fascist state. His careless descriptions of the aircrib might have contributed to the public's common misconception as well. He was too much the scientist and too little the self-publicist - especially hazardous when you are already a controversial figure. He used the word "apparatus" to describe the aircrib, the same word he used to refer to his experimental "Skinner" boxes for rats and pigeons.

The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn't have a cold until I was six. I've enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I'm surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 50s and 60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.

My father's opponents must have been gratified to hear - and maybe keen to pass on - the tales about his child-rearing contraption and crazy daughter. Friends who heard an abridged chapter of Slater's book on Radio 4, or read the reviews, have been phoning to ask if I had really sued my father or had a psychotic episode. I wonder how many friends or colleagues have been afraid to ask, and how many now think about me in a different light.  Why shouldn't the reviews give the rumours as facts, since that's what the book did itself? The plain reality is that Lauren Slater never bothered to check the truth of them (although she claims to have tried to track me down). Instead, she chose to do me and my family a disservice and, at the same time, to debase the intellectual history of psychology. In his Observer review, Tim Adams at least suspected something was amiss with Slater's research. He realised she could have contacted me to confirm or verify what she suspected, but plainly hadn't. His conclusion? I had gone into hiding. Well, here I am, telling it like it is. I'm not crazy or dead, but I'm very angry

 

Opening Skinner's Box; Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, by Lauren Slater, Bloomsbury, 16.99.

from the Urgan Legend site: 
http://www.snopes2.com/science/skinner.asp.  Urban legends have their beginning in the operant reinforcement derived from holding the audience’s ear.  A cute store doesn’t do as well as a nasty one.  Talk-show hosts survive on being nasty, and preachers use hell and damnation to add spice to their sermons. 
 

The trouble began in October 1945, when the magazine Ladies' Home Journal ran an article by Skinner about his baby tender. The article featured a picture of Deborah in a portable (and therefore smaller) version of the box, her hands pressed against the glass, under the headline "Baby in a Box." People who didn't read the article carefully, or who merely glanced at the picture or heard about the article from someone else but didn't read it themselves confused the baby tender with a Skinner box, even though the article clearly explained that the baby tender was something quite different:

When we decided to have another child, my wife and I felt that it was time to apply a little labor-saving invention and design to the problems of the nursery. We began by going over the disheartening schedule of the young mother, step by step. We asked only one question: Is this practice important for the physical and psychological health of the baby? When it was not, we marked it for elimination. Then the "gadgeteering" began.

The result was an inexpensive apparatus in which our baby daughter has now been living for eleven months. Her remarkable good health and happiness and my wife’s welcome leisure have exceeded our most optimistic predictions, and we are convinced that a new deal for both mother and baby is at hand.

We tackled first the problem of warmth. The usual solution is to wrap the baby in half-a-dozen layers of cloth-shirt, nightdress, sheet, and blankets. This is never completely successful. The baby is likely to be found steaming in its own fluids or lying cold and uncovered. Schemes to prevent uncovering may be dangerous, and in fact they have sometimes even proved fatal. Clothing and bedding also interfere with normal exercise and growth and keep the baby from taking comfortable postures or changing posture during sleep. They also encourage rashes and sores. Nothing can be said for the system on the score of convenience, because frequent changes and launderings are necessary.

Why not, we thought, dispense with clothing altogether — except for the diaper, which serves another purpose — and warm the space in which the baby lives? This should be a simple technical problem in the modern home. Our solution is a closed compartment about as spacious as a standard crib . The walls are well insulated, and one side, which can be raised like a window, is a large pane of safety glass. The heating is electrical, and special precautions have been taken to insure accurate control.

After a little experimentation we found that our baby, when first home from the hospital, was completely comfortable and relaxed without benefit of clothing at about 86F. As she grew older, it was possible to lower the temperature by easy stages. Now, at eleven months, we are operating at about 78F, with a relative humidity of 50 per cent.

As Deborah Skinner described her experience with the baby tender many years later:

My father's intentions were simple, and based on removing what he and my mother saw as the worst aspects of a baby's typical sleeping arrangements: clothes, sheets and blankets. These not only have to be washed, but they restrict arm and leg movement and are a highly imperfect method of keeping a baby comfortable. My mother was happy. She had to give me fewer baths and of course had fewer clothes and blankets to wash, so allowing her more time to enjoy her baby.

I was very happy, too, though I must report at this stage that I remember nothing of those first two and a half years. I am told that I never once objected to being put back inside. I had a clear view through the glass front and, instead of being semi-swaddled and covered with blankets, I luxuriated semi-naked in warm, humidified air. The air was filtered but not germ-free, and when the glass front was lowered into place, the noise from me and from my parents and sister was dampened, not silenced.

The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn't have a cold until I was six. I've enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I'm surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 50s and 60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.

 

In 2004 author Lauren Slater touched off a brouhaha and accusations of shoddy research when she repeated many of the familiar "Skinner box" rumors in her book Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century. According to legend, she wrote, Skinner kept Deborah:

. . . caged for two full years, placing within her cramped square space bells and food trays and all manners of mean punishments and bright rewards, and he tracked her progress on a grid. And then, when she was thirty-one and frankly psychotic, she sued him for abuse in a genuine court of law, lost the case, and shot herself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. Boom-boom went the gun.

Deborah Skinner Buzan affirmed that these legends were nothing more than outrageous rumors:

. . . there's the story that after my father "let me out", I became psychotic. Well, I didn't. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana.