Monkey’s Uncle

Monkey See, Monkey Do

Creationist student owned by Dr. Tim White

Harvey Mindess in Makers of Psychology: The Personal Factor reviews behaviorist B.F. Skinner’s book, Walden Two:

A Utopian novel set in contemporary America, Walden Two is the story of a visit by a small group of academics to an extraordinary community run along strictly behaviorist lines. They are variously impressed and repelled by what they see. The community was founded by a man named Frazier, a former psychologist turned reformer, whose belief in operant conditioning knows no bounds. He shows Walden Two to his visitors…keeping up a running commentary on its virtues, at first in a fairly objective manner, but eventually with all the fervor of a zealot.

At the beginning of their visit, for instance, he takes the group out for a walk. “This is our lawn,” he says. “But we consume it. Indirectly, of course — through our sheep. And the advantage is that it doesn’t consume us.… We soon found that the sheep kept to the enclosure and quite clear of the fence, which didn’t need to be electrified. So we substituted a piece of string, which is easier to move around.… [The lambs] stray,” Frazier conceded, “but they cause no trouble and soon learn to keep with the flock.” The curious thing is that most of these sheep have never been shocked by the fence. Most of them were born after we took the wire away. It has become a tradition among our sheep never to approach string. The lambs acquire it from their elders, whose judgment they never question. It’s fortunate that sheep don’t talk,” said [one of Frazier’s visitors]. “One of them would be sure to ask ‘Why?’ The Philosophical Lambkin”.…

The incident seems innocuous enough, but the reader soon learns that it is a prototype for the rest of the story. Not only the animals but also the people at Walden Two have been conditioned to be of service to the community and to carry out their appointed duties without complaint and without question. The resultant peacefulness and efficiency of the place becomes captivation to some of the visitors, but it disturbs others,…who continually raise[] the issue of human beings being deprived of their freedom of choice.

Frazier’s counterargument, like his author’s, is that so-called freedom of choice is an illusion. We are all controlled by our environments, he says. We make continual efforts to control each other — teachers to control their students, students to control their teachers; parents to control their children, children to control their parents; friends and lovers, governments and citizens, all are engaged in this enterprise — but we do it poorly, haphazardly, because we don’t understand what we’re doing and even refuse to acknowledge the truth of our behavior.

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