Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 1.0]

Psychology. The great pseudoscience. A few phenomena explained, a few theories advanced. But no predictions. Because nobody really knows. The tool has not yet been invented that enables scientists to peer into the mind, the personality, the brain, the soul or whatever it is that makes us tick. Until the microscope was invented, man could only speculate about the nature of disease. Until the telescope, we knew nothing of the universe. And until their fantastic gadget does come along, psychologists will remain, in effect, witch doctors.

Donn Pearce (God Is A Variable Interval, Playboy, August, 1972)


 We are all controlled by the world in which we live, and part of that world has been and will be constructed by men. The question is this: Are we to be controlled by accident, by tyrants, or by ourselves in effective cultural design?

The danger of the misuse of power is possibly greater than ever. It is not allayed by disguising the facts. We cannot make wise decisions if we continue to pretend that human behavior is not controlled, or if we refuse to engage in control when valuable results might be forthcoming. Such measures weaken only ourselves, leaving the strength of science to others. The first step in a defense against tyranny is the fullest possible exposure of controlling techniques…

It is no time for self-deception, emotional indulgence, or the assumption of attitudes which are no longer useful. Man is facing a difficult test. He must keep his head now, or he must start again – a long way back.

B.F. Skinner (Freedom and the Control of Men, American Scholar, 1955-56)


This is a work of creative nonfiction. I made every effort to retell these stories in a way that accurately evokes the true feeling and meaning of what occurred, to the extent my memory allowed. In some cases I compressed events, filled in gaps, or made two people into one. All names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of the people involved. A very diligent attempt was made to ensure the accuracy of all philosophy, science, and research discussed throughout the book.


Chapter I

B. F. Skinner lived in a box in our basement.

One Saturday afternoon, Dad and I peered expectantly down into the box at him. His whiskers twitched. Stifling a giggle of anticipation, I shifted slightly and jiggled the table. Burrhus froze and flashed a shiny pink eye at me. Dad frowned, put his finger to his lips, looked at his stop watch, and held up five fingers. Burrhus had already been in the box five long minutes—turning some circles and sniffing along the perimeter for the first four.

“Acclimating to the box,” Dad said—a one foot by one foot box with plexi-glass sides and a metal floor he’d constructed from a model and description he’d seen in one of B.F. (Burrhus Fredrick) Skinner’s books. I was worried Burrhus might not “get it” the first time, especially since I’d snuck him some peanut butter earlier. We were supposed to keep him a little hungry.

I held my breath as Burrhus stood up on two legs, turned toward the bar, and rooted in the air for a better whiff. “You can do it, Burrhus,” I thought. He took two tiny steps, stood up on his hind legs again, and stretched forward, whiskers grasping at the air in front of him. At that, Dad squeezed his clicker and released the hopper, which swung down like a pendulum and delivered Burrhus’ reward. Swiftly, Burrhus approached the hopper and reached out both his delicate little paws for the cheese. He then hopped over to a corner of the box, turned his back to my father, and began spinning and nibbling and turning the shrinking hunk of cheese until it disappeared. He watched me with one eye.

“But Dad, he never touched the bar.”

“That’s true, Michelle. But he almost did… his behavior was a ‘successive approximation.’ The odds of him touching it right off the bat are slim. We’ll have to ‘shape up’ his behavior. If we catch him in a behavior that’s close to touching it, he’ll be more likely to move in that direction next time.”

“But how will he know he’s supposed to touch the lever if he can get the food without it?”

“Well, I’ll reinforce only closer and closer approximations to lever pressing for a while, and then when that behavior is strong, I’ll up the ante and make him actually touch it before giving him the food.”

“But that sounds frustrating for Burrhus.”

“Oh Michelle. Don’t feel bad for Burrhus. He’s getting food for learning and will continue working happily. This is like a game for him. He’s not really hungry, you know. He and Burrhus II ‘free-feed’ all they want for the most part. In fact, they overeat with all the snacks we give them. Animals in the wild have to spend energy all day looking for food. Wild rats live at about 75 percent of their free-feeding weight.”

It was true that I got to feed Burrhus I and Burrhus II snacks sometimes. Their favorite was peanut butter, which stuck to the roof of their mouths. I liked to watch their tiny tongues working overtime, dislodging the stuff and licking their naked little fingers clean. It’s also true I sometimes dressed the Burrhuses up in my Barbie dresses, accessorizing to their hot pink eyes. To me, Burrhus was more the subject of a fashion experiment than a psychological one.

“Daddy, what’s the light in the box for?”

“Well, after Burrhus learns to press the bar for food, I want to turn the light on and only reinforce him for pressing the bar when it’s on. It’s called ‘discrimination’ learning. He’ll learn to tell the difference between two stimuli: light on / light off. What do we do when the phone is ringing?”

“Answer it.”

“And when it’s not ringing?”

“We don’t answer it.”

“Right. We’ve been reinforced—with a caller—when we answer a ringing phone.”

“Ah, but nothing happens when we pick up the phone when it’s not ringing.” I picked up the phone and said “hello” just then to be sure. Nope, no one was there.

“Do you want to put Burrhus back for me?”

“Sure, Dad.”

I gently picked Burrhus up, liking the feel of his soft, warm tummy fur on my fingers, and took him over to the cage he shared with Burrhus II and their new pink babies. Burrhus II looked up at me from where she sat, partially on top of her litter, but she didn’t move. Burrhus got a drink from his water bottle and then hopped on his wheel for some exercise.

“Dad, the babies look fuzzier today.”

The tiny albino rats were only five days old. On the day they were born, I was upstairs when I heard one of the Burrhuses squealing. I thought they were fighting again, but when I went downstairs, Burrhus II was by herself in a corner of the cage and little wet, red blobs were oozing out of her. I yelled for Dad who took a look and said, “Ah! She must have been pregnant. She’s having babies.”

“How did the babies get in there?!” I asked.

“Well, females have eggs inside them and males have sperm. So Burrhus’ sperm must have fertilized her eggs and once eggs are fertilized, they grow into baby rats inside the mother’s tummy—inside a bigger sac called a uterus—until they are big enough to come out.”

“But, I don’t see any egg shells.”

“Rat eggs are soft. They’re not like bird eggs.”

“Oh.” I thought for a minute then asked, “How many are there?”

“You count them,” Dad said.

“One, two, three, four, five, six. There are six of them, Dad! How long till they get big?”

“Probably a month or so. Then we’ll take them to the pet store and see if they will take them. We’d also better get a second cage, so Burrhus II doesn’t get pregnant again.”

Now, five days later, the babies’ eyes were almost open. They were cute, and I asked if I could keep one.

“Sure,” Dad said.

“Do I have to name it Burrhus III?”

Chuckling a little, Dad responded, “No, Honey, you can name it whatever you want.”

“Good.” I wanted to name it Shirley, after Shirley Temple.

“Dad, the experiment’s over. Can we listen to our song now?” We couldn’t listen to music during experiments because Dad said Burrhus might associate a piece of the music with his reward.

“Sure, Honey. ‘Lazy Day’ again?”

“Yes! Then ‘Michelle my Bell.’ Wait for me!”

I ran across the cool, gray concrete floor to get my Dorothy Hamill doll, who was permanently attached to a pedestal and frozen in a pirouette, and Railroad Dan the puppet dog, whose bibbed overalls and conductor’s hat were sewn onto him. They were still sitting at the orange and white, plastic flowered table in my toy kitchen in the corner of the basement. By that time, they’d had plenty to eat, so I wiped their mouths and skipped them over to the wooden swing my Dad had hung for me from a beam in the basement ceiling. I pushed off with Dorothy pinned under one arm and Dan cuddled in the other while Dad put the record on and the basement filled with familiar vocals and trance-like chords. I loved The Moody Blues—and The Beatles. So did Dan and Dorothy.

Dad sat down at his huge, gray, metal desk, clicked on his lamp, opened his notebook, and chose a mechanical pencil from his collection. I didn’t have to watch him to know he was recording the date and some notes about Burrhus I’s progress. He reached for a book on his desk shelf and referenced something in it. Although tall bookshelves lined one whole wall of the basement, Dad’s favorite books—all his B. F. Skinner books, as well as Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes, Darwin’s Origin of Species, and Watson’s Behaviorism—sat in a neat row on his desk sandwiched between two marble book ends that were shaped like horse heads.

“Dad, what’s a butter sco?”


“In the song, they say ‘wake up for tea and butter sco.’”

“Oh, buttered scones. Those are like biscuits.”

At the end of the song, I reminded Dad to put on “Michelle.” I loved that one because The Beatles sang in a different language, and Dad said that’s where he and Mom got my name. While Dad put the music on, I went over to the marble and leather bar across the room from Dad’s desk and nonchalantly mixed up fake cocktails for Dad, Railroad Dan, and Miss Hamill and delivered them to everyone on a tin serving tray.

After tipping me a quarter and enthusiastically sipping his drink for a bit, Dad turned the music down and said it was “interview time.” I arranged Dan and Dorothy on the swing and climbed up on his lap. He gave me the microphone and pushed the RECORD button.

He cleared his voice. “Okay, young lady. Today’s date is April 14th, 1978. State your name and the day.”

“Michelle Marlene Dean and it’s Saturday.”

“And how old are you?”

“Five and a half.”

“What have you been doing today?”

“Well, today we put Burrhus in the box and he almost pressed the lever.”

“Yes, and what else?”

“Well, Mindy came over and we played cooking with hamburgers and fries.”

“Very interesting indeed. That sounds fun.”

“Can we listen to the recorder now?”

“Not yet. The more you talk into it, the more you’ll have to listen to later. Okay?”

I glanced around the room, looking for material. There were apothecary scales, a collection of hour glasses, a working paper clock that Dad spent months constructing, an assortment of glass paper weights, and a human anatomy model. There were also sets of Chinese and Japanese abacuses, but I didn’t want to mention them because Dad would surely give me more math problems to solve. Then I noticed, on one corner of Dad’s desk, an eight-inch statue of a monkey holding a human skull while sitting on a stack of books.

“Okay. Daddy, what’s that monkey doing up there on those books?”

Dad brought the monkey over and sat it in front of me. I tried to lift it, but it was heavy. “What’s it made of?” I asked.

“Plaster and nickel, I think,” Dad said. “What do you think he’s doing?”

“He’s sitting on books, scratching his head…Hey! He’s holding a skeleton head!”

“That’s called a skull,” Dad said as he tapped it with his fingernail. “That’s what your head looks like under your skin. It’s hard so that it can protect your brain, which is soft.”

“Oh. Whose skull is it?”

“I don’t know. Maybe he found it on the ground, picked it up, and is wondering, ‘What in the heck is this crazy thing?’”

I laughed and started fiddling with my shoes. Then I heard footsteps upstairs. “Mom must be up.”

“Yes. Mom’s bowling tonight, so we’ll have to go out for dinner.”

“Can we go to Pizza Hut?” It was the only restaurant in our town where a waitress would come take your order. Plus, they had a small corner booth covered in red velvet that I loved. I hoped it would be empty tonight.

“I suppose.” Dad stuck out his tongue and rolled his eyes, as if disgusted by the idea.

We waited downstairs until we heard the front door close and then Dad said, “Will you please sing one of the new songs you learned in school?” He held the microphone to my mouth.

“I suppose,” I said, taking my turn at sticking out my tongue and rolling my eyes.

After three rounds of “Where is Thumbkin?” Dad turned off the recorder so I could listen to the interview and then we went upstairs to get ready for dinner.

We did get the corner booth at Pizza Hut and after returning, I asked Dad if we could go see if “the fountain” was on. We only lived a block from the hospital, which had a fountain near the back door roundabout. We also happened to live directly across the street from the town’s cemetery, so I grabbed Dad’s hand while we headed across our front yard. The air was warm and muggy as I peered into the blackness across the street.

“Daddy, can the ghosts leave the cemetery?”

“Who told you about ghosts?” he said, chuckling.

“Doug Mooney. He’s in my class. He says I’m spooky because of the cemetery and that he’d be scared to live in our house.”

“Oh. That’s silly. There’s really no such thing as ghosts. Have you ever seen one?”


“Well, that’s because they don’t exist. They’re in people’s imaginations and they’re made up on TV with special effects.”

As we got closer to the water tower, which stood on one side of the hospital lot, it loomed larger and larger. Even though it was probably only ten stories high, when I was right next to it, it felt like a space saucer silently hovering above me. It was thrilling and chilling at the same time, and I always pulled dad’s hand hard to run around it, for fear its gravitational force would suck us up and in.

When we got to the fountain, we sat on our bench. Both the lights and the water were turned on tonight. At one end, the lights were red, and at the other they were blue. Lights in the middle shone yellow, so all the colors of the rainbow cycled through the overlapping domes, like scoops of rainbow sherbet. I never tired of watching it because the combinations were always a surprise. We sat there and talked for almost an hour.

“Want a penny for a wish?”

“Sure, Daddy.”

I wished for Burrhus’ babies to grow up fast, and then we raced home. Dad chased me all the way into bed. After we’d both put our pajamas on, Dad came back to tuck me in and asked me to read out loud from my Dick and Jane book. I read my favorite part, where Jane gets a big doll family for her birthday. After that, Dad kissed me good night—four times on each cheek—and left the door cracked.

Alone in the dark, I felt around to organize my stuffed animals. It was Pink Mousie’s night to be cuddled. I counted everyone and discovered someone was missing! White Teddy was on the floor near the foot of my bed. Panic seized me. I’d have to reach over the side of the bed, risking a bite from the monstrous snapping turtle that hid under there in the dark. I’d have to act quickly and silently. Repeating my favorite number “four” for good luck, I slowly crawled on top of my covers and leaned forward to within arms’ reach of Teddy.

Holding my breath, I shot my arm down and back up again and then flung myself back to the middle of the bed and dove under the covers. I checked to make sure Teddy was not hurt or mad at me. He seemed fine, but I felt it was only fair to hug him tightly, even out of turn, next to Mousie tonight. I couldn’t stop thinking that the monster turtle would be mad that I tricked him when he noticed Teddy had disappeared. I could feel my heart beating fast, so I tried to do what Dad told me to do when I got scared in the dark—think of happy, soft, cute things, like bunnies. I thought of an entire field full of beautiful flowers and hopping bunnies. Eventually, my heart stopped pounding and I drifted off to sleep.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s