Insights from the Helping Professions


B. F. Skinner, 1983

B. F. Skinner's contributions as a scientist have focused on discovering how to achieve a more humane world. At the pinnacle of a brilliant career spanning over six decades, he has identified significant reasons why there is not peace in the world. In the discussion I had with Dr. Skinner, he applied his insights from a lifelong study of human behavior to the problem of achieving peace.

Skinner: I'm inclined to believe that the problem of peace comes down to some issues which can be attacked at the personal level. After all, peace is simply freedom from control through violence of some kind or other. It isn't that we don't know what to do; the control is in the hands of people who cannot do them. There are three great agencies which control almost all of the behavior of four and a half-billion people on the earth today: government, religion, and capital (business and industry). They all individually have rather immediate consequences which control their behavior, and we are asking them to take a more remote consequence into account, and that is where the experimental analysis of behavior comes in, because we analyze behavior in terms of the effects of consequences.

The governments - no one in Washington could take a really effective stand on, let us say, the consumption of energy, because he would not be in office at the next election if he did. Too many people insist on being able to consume at the present rate. Each of us pollutes more than, let us say, a dozen Indians in Asia, or Chinese for that matter, or certainly more than Africans, and it's because we have been so successful technically. And it is due to positive reinforcement; having a car which responds quickly, goes fast - that is a very reinforcing thing. And to drop back to a car that had, let us say, the power of the old Model-T Ford, which would still get us around, (and we do have times to spare) we don't need to go this fast. That would be the sacrifice: a great deal of personal pleasure. And the same thing is true of temperature. For example, we want to have our houses cool enough in the summer to wear the clothing we wear in the winter, because we will warm the houses in the winter so we can wear that kind of clothing. The idea of going about in very light clothing in the summer, and wearing very heavy clothes in the winter, that's out of date now. We want to change the world instead of changing ourselves, and as a result, of course, we use an enormous amount of energy.

You could train children to be quite happy with using a little much less - much lower use of energy. Bathing, for example, the hot bath kind of thing. A big tub full of water, and that kind of thing. There's an enormous amount of energy that goes into that, not to mention the water which is already in short supply. But with children, you can easily teach them to enjoy cold water. It's very hard for an adult whose been use to hot water to get use to cold, but it can be taught and could be done. You have to take these issues one by one and deal with them. We overeat, of course, enormous amounts of meat. We not only overeat, but we throw away food. What you leave on the table would ordinarily keep another person alive. That is a matter of changing dietary habits.

How do you make the changes? Education could do some of it, but whether you're going to do it through governments that make it illegal to eat too much meat or something like that, those are the very problems which are very hard to solve. General Motors can't look more than five years ahead on the design of a car. If they designed a car that really got people around without consuming a lot of gasoline, it wouldn't sell. They have to take that into account.

Religion is a curious case. Those religions which look forward to another world regard this world as expendable. That is the Christian notion of the second coming, and for many centuries led people to neglect this world entirely. They were looking for a future life somewhere else, and I've talked with friends in the Divinity School at Harvard about this, and they say no, don't look to religion for very many solutions about the problems in this world. That's because of that curious alternative consequence that they are thinking about.

Now there are people who compose what used to be called 'the fourth estate:' It's those who were not in government, religion, or industry and business: writers, scientists, scholars, teachers, the media. And to the extent that they're not controlled by governments or capital or religion, they are not tied up by the immediate consequences which affect those people, and they can look ahead. And they are the ones who today predict the future which seems to lie ahead of us, who write about it, but what can they do? They don't have power, you see. They have to go to the 'three estates'. They have to go to government, religion, or capital and try to persuade them to change. And then they encounter the same problem.

Whiteley: So what you're saying is that you would initially begin by analyzing where power could be exerted to change the circumstances that the society's on, which are potentially very catastrophic. And your analysis leads you to government, religion, and the agencies of capital, as the three with the most power. Well, their problem is that they are not responsive to long-term consequences.

Skinner: That's right. Now you can say that the 'fourth estate' could go to the people, you see, but the people can't do anything. You see that in the "March on Washington." The people go to governments also to try to get the government to change, you see. If you could go to the four and a half-billion people and convince them all that they shouldn't have so many children, and shouldn't engage in activities which use vast amounts of energy and so on, you would be all right. But that's impossible. You can't do that. So, what is the solution? Well, I like to feel that the study of positive reinforcement has revealed already many good examples of how that punitive control can be replaced. For example, in education, the whole point of program instruction is to give the student frequent opportunity to be right, rather than to be studying in fear of not getting good grades on examination. Good incentive systems in industry not only get people to work carefully and accurately, but they get them to enjoy what they're doing. And so that we are slowly substituting positive reinforcement for punitive control, and this is a move in the direction of peace, but at a very small level.

But I can imagine that if we could clear out of the modern American way of life, most of those things which induce us to act to avoid the consequences of not acting, we would change. We would change with respect to each other, and the country as a whole would change and with respect to other countries. And once a thing of this sort was clear, it would be emulated, copied by other people. It seems to me, (I like to believe, and this may be my Utopian streak, but I like to believe) that it is possible, at long last, to change the ways in which people treat each other so that they behave peacefully rather than through a threat or force.

Whiteley: So a basic reason that these three institutions do not modify their stance toward the future of the world is related to the negative reinforcers that all three are employing.

Skinner: Right.

Whiteley: And the solution that you are suggesting is to try to change the nature of the personal interactions between those three institutions and people at a personal level to get the system to be one of more immediate positive consequences.

Skinner: Yes. You see the 'fourth estate' has already done that because they don't have the punitive power. A writer doesn't coerce you into reading. He writes something that you either want to read or you won't read it. So he has to work, to create something that will reinforce the behavior of reading it. Artists, the people who make movies, put on plays and so on, they're not coercing anyone. They are producing something that will reinforce action, reinforce buying a ticket and going to a movie or a play. And that's true of people who write novels. No one is under any compulsion to read novels unless they're taking a course in novels at a university, and the novelist is creating something, and will, as we say, reinforce reading his book. So they already are in possession of the alternatives to punitive control. And they ought to be able to teach the other institutions something about this. And I'm hoping that with advances in the science of behavior we'll be able to find some possible change which has a better incentive system than industry, and certainly better contingencies which affect economic action in general - buying, selling, renting, and so on, that kind of thing.

And many religions claim to work through love, and if you'd get them to let it go at that instead of bringing in the devil as well as a living God, things might be better. But at the moment, religion hasn't very much to show for itself as an instrument of peace. Most of the conflict in the world today right now, is of religious origin, and that's taking religion very broadly.

Governments have, at times, turned to reward. And instead of punishing a farmer for not planting a certain number of acres, we pay him for not doing so, which is a move in the direction, anyway, of positive reinforcement instead of punishment. And these things appeal to everyone; no one likes to be punished, no one likes to be working under a threat of punishment. Once this point is realized, I think they can become peaceful people. Now you say well, but the rest of the world isn't going to be this way and we're going to suffer. But I don't think that's true. I think we can still be powerful while being peaceful.

Whiteley: And while changing within our own culture the way that people relate to the established institutions.

Skinner: It would set a pattern. It would be copied by others if we remain successful.

Whiteley: This theme of designing a culture of which would operate with positive reinforcement is one that you began with Walden II.

Skinner: Right. That was an attempt to do just that.

Whiteley: And your critics have asked, how do you move from the current culture and the people in it who are already conditioned to a certain set of problems to be able to live together in the second generation, which would have been conditioned by the external environment to be able to live more, in this case, peacefully.

Skinner: If you got them through the first generation, your educational system would prepare you for the next. But I think that's a possibility. There have been many movements in history in which people have changed rather radically from one way of living to another. I don't know whether you must always have supernatural sanctions, as in a religion, or extremely powerful sanctions through fire and sword and governments, and so on. I should like to think that we are capable of being modified in gentler ways.

Whiteley: You have a lot of faith, or hope, in the power of those least controlled within our society to design a better set of contingencies.

Skinner: Yes. I'm not assuming that people are naturally good or generous or anything. I think they're in neutral. But if anything, they have been subjected more to punitive control. After all, a child learns how to walk because he's punished when he falls down, and this is built into us. However, the whole function of a culture is to correct for the inadequacies and ineptnesses of natural selection. And I think that you can show that people are peaceful or not, with respect to each other, not so much because of some long-standing innate tendency to be aggressive, but because of the way they are currently handled.

Whiteley: But you're also not assuming that human nature is somehow predisposed naturally to warlike or exploitative or careless toward the environment, that that's a learned response that people acquire during their life.

Skinner: Well, I am assuming that our almost natural tendency to resort to punishment (if we're bigger than the other fellow, we control through force), that that is something we learn quickly if it isn't inbred. We learn it because we get quick effects. If I'm bigger than, well let's say a child - I'm a teacher and the child is smaller than I am - so the easy way for me is to threaten him, "Learn that or else!" And that has been done for several thousand years in education; until very recently school kids were beaten unmercifully. That's the way you got them to study. But that isn't necessarily a sign that that is the way people are. It's just that is what you do if you want to get a quick result. If instead you turn to positive reinforcement or reward, the result is deferred. You don't get an immediate result, you see. And so it's not easy to learn. Now my hope is that as we make clear how positive reinforcement works, people will begin to use it much more than they do now, and will begin to see the remote consequences, not too remote, just the short term, and will then switch from the seemingly natural punitive techniques which we all use, to positive reinforcement and a very much more peaceful world.

Whiteley: You've written both that people respond most to immediate consequences, and paradoxically, in dealing with war many of the ways we appear to go about getting into it are not really immediate consequences. Each side starts escalating and pretty soon they have long since forgotten what got them started. How do you take on that problem and solve it?

Skinner: Well it's a very difficult problem, no doubt about that. When there's a confrontation any positive move is regarded as weakness and somebody is going to take advantage of you. There was a proposal made by a psychologist, Charles Osgood, which I think was tried once when we were face-to-face with the Russians of Berlin. The idea was, pull back your tanks a couple of miles and see what they do. And so we tried it and they did pull back and so on, but normally it goes too far. You don't dare, you can't be nice to an enemy. You're afraid of the consequences. I think it would have worked. I think we could - we miss every chance to take advantage of any concession because we're suspicious -something must be in back of it, they can't be nice to us, we mustn't let them make a positive offer, they can't be right, there must be something wrong with it. And the result is there is never anything by way of a conciliatory move.

Whiteley: And since people will respond most productively to positive reinforcers, we're set up to avoid becoming under the control of positive reinforcers. In this, you've also written that people are most apt to want to avoid war, get peace, when they have been subject to the immediate consequences. Well, over the last decades in American society, generation after generation has found itself in the midst of a war. Both Europe and Japan were heavily damaged, as well as other parts of the world. What's the struggle we haven't accomplished, to where it's awfully immediate?

Skinner: Yes. Well, see we've always condemned brainwashing, as we call it, and I would too because it starts off with a very punitive situation. However, the real way in which brainwashing can change people toward commitment to a very different point of view is the use of positive reinforcement, and we should learn a lesson from that. In a typical situation you have a person under duress of some kind, and kept awake or something, and not given smoke if he's a smoker. And then some other figure comes in, gets him to make a slight concession. For example, "I don't believe communism would work in America, but I can see where it's done some good in Russia." Then immediately, well, that's enough for the day. You've got the positive reinforcement which is a release from the duress, and you use it. And the next day a little concession is made, and have a cigarette and so on. And what you're doing is slowly reinforcing statements which are coming your way, and before long you've got him hooked. And he really believes what he says because he said it for positive reasons. And that could be done in international negotiations just as well as in prisoner of war interrogation.

Whiteley: All those negotiations are not handled by the principals, however.

Skinner: No, no. And the man who prides himself on being a tough diplomat, you see, you couldn't do that. He would be accused of making concessions.

Whiteley: That gets into another part of apparently, how people have learned to respond. My threats to you, to me don't seem nearly as powerful as your threats to me.

Skinner: Well, oh yes. Well that is of course, I often with my students, described the technique that was used on board sailing ships in the old days when there would be a calm, when nothing was going on. They would take three or four young boys who would ship with the ship, and fasten their left hands to the mast in a ring. And they'd give them each a stick, and all they had to do was, when they felt themselves catching back, to tap the boy in front. And there was no reason why they should tap hard at all, but each boy always felt that he'd been hit a little harder than he hits. And in a short time they would be lashing each other. Now there was no reason why they should be punishing themselves that way, but it builds up, just as you say, because the blow you give seems much less than the blow you receive, and two nations can be doing this trick and working up to greater and greater threats.

Whiteley: And you've written that immediate behavior is not influenced nearly as much by the devastating contingencies of war. They're a little further off, but as the boys running around the mast, by those immediate blows to the back which serve to escalate, how...

Skinner: You see one peacemaker might break it all up; one boy, if just one boy resolved never to hit hard no matter how hard he was hit, it wouldn't work.

Whiteley: Two of your most significant books were Walden II, where you tried to use operant conditioning to create a better world, and you had the initial consensus to design the contingencies of reinforcement differently. And in Beyond Freedom and Dignity, you talked about the necessity for society to put to work the behavioral sciences, which in your view had much to offer to help change individuals so that the society would learn better. Because as you pointed out, it's harder to reinforce society or punish society; that the answer is to change individual behavior. Your ideas are there, and you've spent a career showing how business can use your ideas, how governments can change their relationship to people. How do we begin the initial steps to a more peaceful world?

Skinner: Well, in those ten years I've become much more pessimistic. After I wrote Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and the argument there was that as soon as we begin to understand human behavior we can see what is wrong and see why we should not go on aggrandizing our freedom and dignity, but instead take the future of the species into account. As soon as I finished that book I began to write a book on how we can take the future into account. And I've completed the book; it wasn't what I wanted, and I broke it all up and tried again. I completed it again, and there wasn't the answer there, and I stopped working on it. And then it was two years ago that I turned to that again at the invitation to participate in an international conference on the environmental future. And I wrote a paper then which was really rather a pessimistic paper. I just outlined the main argument that those institutions which are arranging the world in which we live must only take the future into account of maybe five or ten years hence. And that usually is in conflict with the predicted future of say 25 years hence, or 100 years hence. And so long as that is the case, I'm still searching for some way out in which we can find perhaps a behavioral process of a different kind that can be used to appeal to people with current reasons so that they behave in ways which are congruent with the future. You have to find the current reason to keep people reading less, polluting less, consuming less, and certainly getting away from warlike confrontation in which it is possible that nuclear weapons would be used.

Whiteley: Dr. Skinner, thank you for sharing with us today your insights into improving the condition of society and leading us to a more peaceful world.