Life in a Skinner Box: A Memoir [Chapter 2.0]

Chapter II

Spring break of fifth grade, I took a trip to Florida with Grandma Jane and Grandpa Martin. Since our plane was leaving so early Saturday morning, I spent Friday night at their house. Mom dropped me off around dinner time, popping inside only long enough to set my suitcase down and say she had to be somewhere. Grandpa was dozing in his chair in the living room and Grandma was leaning over their round oak dinner table, which took up much of their very small kitchen. She had a stack of black-and-white photos in her left hand, and she was arranging and spreading dozens of photos across the table with her right.

“Hi Grandma!”

“Are you sure you brought everything, Shellie-Bird?”

“Yep. I packed everything you put on the list. I’m so excited.”

As I walked over to her, I saw that some of the photos were Polaroids and others were eight-by-tens.

“What are all these pictures, Grandma?”

“They’re photos from work I brought home to organize.”

For the past twenty years, my grandmother had been a secretary to the crime investigators at the local state police post. She transcribed all the interviews the detectives and cops conducted with criminals and victims. The cases she heard and the murder mysteries she read led Grandma to talk often and in great detail of crimes—rapes, murders, molestations, suicides—and the psychology of the criminals, until my grandfather would bark at her to shut her trap because she was “driving [him] insane with all that morbid shit.”

I sat down at the table for a closer look. Some photos were mug shots, and some were close-ups of battered body parts, but most were of crime scenes themselves, with and without dead bodies in them. I cringed, but kept looking. They were like none of the pictures or movies I’d seen of dead people. The bodies in these photos were in strange, awkward positions, like one half-naked, heavy woman flopped over the back of a couch with bullet holes in her back, or a man sitting on a bed against the headboard with half his head blown off and bits of brain all over the walls. In some of them, especially the ones without whole bodies, I couldn’t tell exactly what had happened and I’d ask Grandma. She’d matter-of-factly describe the scene: “Husband shot his wife for cheating on him. Kid run over by a tractor. Dog mauling. Car wreck—four fatalities.”

“Oh, Grandma, these are awful. How can you look at these?” I said while picking up another stack.

She picked up one of a car crash, showed it to me, and said, “You know, this one surprised even me. If you’re in a head-on collision and aren’t wearing your seat belt, your head will fly through the window and pop off when your shoulders catch. They are too big to go through.” She flicked her thumb when she said “pop off”, and it made me think of that moment of pressure when you finally get the head of a dandelion to pop off.

“If you think these are bad, you should see an autopsy.” She then explained in detail how they have to remove the person’s face to saw into their skull. I couldn’t imagine ever doing something like that.

Grandpa woke up about then and chastised Grandma for not having dinner ready. She told him to bite her, that it was ready, and he should get his fat ass off the sofa and see for himself. She organized the pictures into piles and then placed them into manila envelopes. Sitting at the table, eating goulash, Grandpa ran down our Florida itinerary. I could barely sleep—I was so excited. And I was not disappointed. I thoroughly enjoyed every moment of my trip, even with my grandparents’ constant bickering; they couldn’t make one move or utter one word without the other criticizing, resisting, or at least rolling their eyes and mumbling “for fuck’s sake” under their breaths.

One night as we were walking into a restaurant for dinner, Grandma half-fainted at the hostess stand, and feigning weakness, she meekly and theatrically stated that we needed to be sat at a table immediately as she needed some “sugar” so she could take her insulin shot. The manager found us a table and Grandma explained her diabetes history to him and then ordered a glass of orange juice. When the waiter arrived a few moments later, she delayed taking her first drink of orange juice until she had told her diabetes history to him.

That Grandpa was mortified and disgusted was pretty clear from all his lip smacking and huffing and shifting in his seat. Rendered a bit speechless even, Grandpa gave up trying to micromanage her in that moment, especially after she drank her orange juice, lifted her shirt up, and gave herself an insulin shot smack in the middle of one of her big belly rolls right there at the table, timed to the waiter’s return with our salads. Grandpa just rolled his eyes and said, “Aw Christ on a popsicle stick, Jane. For fuck’s sake.” Two days later, Grandma Jane choked on a piece of bread at the hotel buffet, and Grandpa had to ask the waiter to call an ambulance. I was quite concerned until Grandma began flirting and telling jokes to the EMTs.

In spite of Grandma’s drama, both Grandma and Grandpa were friendly and understanding with me. I had pretty quickly figured out when to speak and how to act around Grandpa so I wouldn’t set him off. Grandpa was one of the few people I truly feared when he got angry. He was the only person who had ever spanked me and he did it so hard one time, it left a big red hand print on my butt through my pants. Dad warned me before my trip that Grandpa only knew how to use “aversive stimuli,” like threats, to get people to behave the way he wanted them to. Grandpa also had a way of making you feel stupid by teasing or mocking. Dad said those were other forms of aversive control because people would do whatever they could to make them stop. I’d soon discovered that if I ate all my food, was never late or “pokey,” laughed at his jokes, and thanked him at least twice for everything, he stayed pretty happy.

Visiting SeaWorld was the highlight of the trip. I had never seen any sort of marine life up close, but there I got to feed dolphins and pet stingrays and, of course, view hundreds of aquarium animals. When it was time for the killer whale show, we filed into the stadium and found seats fairly high up. Grandma wanted to sit in the front, but Grandpa wasn’t having any part of getting wet in the lower rows. When Grandma insisted and started to make her move, Grandpa told her to sit her ass back down. Then he pointed to her breasts, and said that she had no business being in a “wet T-shirt contest with those things.”

Grandma said, “Oh, shut up. You know you’d like it!” But she stayed in her seat. After fifteen or so minutes, the music in the stadium changed in anticipation of the act. As Shamu and the other killer whales swam out together in front of us, diving and spinning, all the hairs on my neck and arms stood up. I was mesmerized; they were the most beautiful creatures I’d ever seen. Suddenly, I felt so overwhelmed with awe and a longing to be near them, tears came to my eyes. Their vocalizations made me weep and filled me with joy. Hope of a wonderful possibility sprung in me.

I turned to my grandma. “Can I do that someday? Could I work here with Shamu?”

“Well, I suppose. I mean I don’t know why not. I think anyone could become a marine life trainer.”

“How do you get to become one?”

“Not sure. And that’s a long way away, Honey. You don’t need to worry about that now.”

But I did worry about it. When I returned home, I told Dad about my future career. He said that maybe I could write to SeaWorld and ask them how people become marine life trainers. I fired off a letter to them immediately. Several weeks later, I received a response from SeaWorld that, in a nutshell, read like this:

“Thanks kid. You and a million other kids want to be dolphin trainers someday. Do you have any idea how many people at our parks actually work with the larger, exotic marine mammals? Well, we’ll tell you. Only about 7 percent of our total employees work with animals at all, and only 1 percent of that 7 percent work with dolphins or whales. But, if you are still reading this letter, here are some things you can do to increase your [astronomical] odds of having a marine life training career: (1) Get a job or volunteer working with animals at your nearest zoo or aquatic park. (2) Begin working on your scuba certification. (3) Come to one of our SeaWorld Summer camps. (4) Acquire a degree in zoology, marine biology, animal behavior, or psychology.”

Of course, due to my geographical location, only number 4 was even possible. Still, I knew what I wanted to do with my life, and from that moment on, I envisioned myself in that tank someday. When I showed the letter to my dad he said, “Ohhhh, of course. I bet they use Skinner’s operant conditioning and positive reinforcement to train the animals.” Suddenly, behaviorism became more interesting to me.

“Dad, how did you find out about B. F. Skinner?”

“Well, I didn’t know much about him until the year you were born. While I was stepping onto a train one day back when I was still just a conductor, two other guys were getting off from their trip. One of them handed me an August 1972 issue of Playboy magazine.”

“Isn’t that the magazine with the naked girls in it?”

“Well, yes, there are naked girls in it, but there are also quite a few decently written articles in it from time to time—although I’m not sure it was circulating among those guys for intellectual purposes. Anyway, one of the articles was called ‘God is a Variable Interval,’ by Donn Pearce. In the article, Pearce attacked Skinner and his book “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” published the year before. I found Skinner’s ideas fascinating and mentioned them to a college student who was filling in for someone’s vacation on the railroad that summer. The student was studying psychology and happened to have a bound chapter from one of his courses called ‘The Analysis of Human Operant Behavior’ by Ellen Reese. In it was an excerpt from one of Skinner’s papers called ‘Freedom and the Control of Men.’ The excerpt began:

‘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?’

I was 19 years old and up until reading that I never questioned that we had free will. I assumed, like everyone else, that it was obvious.”

“What does free will mean again?”

“Remember when I explained Darwin’s theory of evolution and that over time, any mutations in our DNA that increased our likelihood of surviving to reproductive age were selected and passed on to our offspring? The environment we live in ‘selects us,’ so to speak. Likewise, over our own lifetimes, our successful behaviors are selected by the consequences they produce in our environment And the stimuli present when these behaviors are reinforced gain control over the behavior and make us more likely to repeat this behavior when the same or similar conditions are present next time; they ‘cue’ the behavior.

“But, most people think we have free will and make all our choices without the influence or control of other people or things in our past or present environments. Although our behavior appears to be determined by ‘a mind’ that determines and initiates behavior on its own, our behavior is really determined by external factors in the environment. If you think about it, inventing an entity like a mind to explain behavior just requires us to now explain what that entity is and how it works. We can speculate about how it works, but until we gain the science to understand just how the brain mediates behavior—until the field of neuroscience progresses to that point—we’ve only gotten father away from trying to demonstrate lawfulness. And Skinner believes our behavior is lawful. That is his whole point; that it does follow principles that can be discovered and understood.”

“But dad, what are thoughts then?”

“Skinner knows we have thoughts, of course, but those thoughts are not what cause us to act and they don’t really help much in explaining our behavior. To him, thoughts and feelings are just more behavior to be explained. They are not causes, but they occur at just the right time to seem like causes. If anything, they are collateral behavior or accompaniments of behavior or parts of a chain of behaviors. Why they seem so special to us is because they are ‘private behavior’ that can only be ‘seen’ by the person having them. But this doesn’t make them any less lawful.”

“Oh. I see.” Or, at least I thought I did.

“So, anyway, after reading that article, I went out and bought Skinner’s book ‘Science and Human Behavior’ and immediately read it twice. I learned that Skinner was attempting to develop a new kind of psychology—an actual science of human behavior—instead of the unscientific study of subjective human experiences and invisible mental functions that Skinner called ‘explanatory fictions’, which had been the focus of psychology until then. Skinner wanted to study the effects of the environment and consequences on observable, measurable behavior using the scientific method. You’ve been learning about the scientific method in school, right?”

“I think so.”

“Well, it’s when you change only one variable at a time and hold all the other ones constant to see what effect the change has. Skinner wants to study only the behaviors we can observe and measure. The only assumption he began with is that behavior is lawful; after all, you can’t have a science of behavior if behavior is capricious. Skinner studied this very carefully with simple organisms—like rats and pigeons—under very controlled conditions and eventually found they applied to every organism investigated, including humans. He believes that human thoughts, feelings, and emotions are just private, covert behavior and that once we develop instruments to detect and measure them reliably, we will find they are subject to the same laws of learning as overt behavior. Soon after, I bought every book Skinner had written and read them all. Then I found other behaviorists, such as Fred Keller, Richard Mallot, Charles Catania, Nathan Azrin, James Dinsmoor, Jack Michael, and Ellen Reese.

“Now, Ellen Reese had written a manual for beginning students of Behavior theory, called ‘Experiments in Operant Behavior.’ It contained instructions for making an experimental box for pigeons, along with a living cage, both of which I constructed out of corrugated cardboard here in the basement when you were still very young. The box had a small square window cut about eight inches from the box floor where I could display different stimuli—like different size circles, colored triangles, and a black square—that I’d placed on a rotating disk. About two inches under that was another hole the pigeon could stick his head through to eat grain, but it was kept covered by a hatchet-shaped device until I was ready to give reinforcement. When I pivoted the hatchet to allow access to the grain, it hit a small block of wood that made a clicking sound to signal to the pigeon that food was available.

“Once the box and cage were built, I located a pigeon breeder and he gave me two pigeons. I clipped their flight wings according to the instructions in the manual, and learned the proper way to handle and weigh them. I kept them at 80 percent of their free-feeding weight so I could use food as a reinforcer. I named them ‘Fred’ after Fred Skinner and ‘Yvonne’ after his wife. It took a while for them to get acclimated to the experimental box, but once their emotional responses to the box were extinguished, I was conducting the experiments outlined in Ellen’s book. It was really very cool! Unfortunately, after several months we realized the pigeons were causing you to have some kind of allergic reaction, so I had to move them out to the shed. That’s when I decided to get Burrhus and make his box instead.”

Dad thought of himself as a “true” Skinnerian. He loved Skinner’s thinking so much in fact, that if Skinner ever even referenced someone, like other psychologists or scientists such as Pavlov or Watson or Darwin, Dad would seek out their works to get a more complete picture of the puzzle. Lately, he’d been searching for the writings of one of Skinner’s biggest critics (somebody named Noam Chomsky) because he felt he couldn’t adequately defend Skinner if he didn’t understand his critics. I think Dad believed in Skinner to such a degree he needed to read his critics for himself to ensure Skinner’s ideas would hold up under scrutiny.