B. F. Skinner's Walden Two
By Brad Bell
B. F. Skinner’s contribution to psychology is quite significant. He is well-known for principles of operant conditioning (e.g., positive reinforcement). In addition to his scholarly contributions, he can be considered to have made a lasting contribution to the utopian literature. His novel, Walden Two (Skinner, 1976), provides insight into the nature of utopia with a description of a fictitious utopian community. In this essay, I provide a description, analysis, and critique of key themes in Walden Two. Three of these themes are the good life, freedom, and behavior modification.
The Good Life
There may be a multitude of possible philosophical perspectives on the good life. B. F. Skinner’s perspective in Walden Two (Skinner, 1976) could be viewed as partly reflecting a fundamental motivation to express individuality. There are certain statements that seem to support this. For example, one learns in Walden Two (Skinner, 1976) that art thrives in the community, work that is not creative is avoided, and that the good life is an opportunity to exercise abilities and talents.
We also learn that people in the community work for just four hours a day on the average (Skinner, 1976). This may be advantageous for a number of reasons. These may include less stress, and more time for social interaction and hobbies. It may also allow for a greater expression of individuality. A four-hour work day may foster individuality by allowing more time for thinking about what one wishes to think about, and more time for personal conversations and creative activities.
In Walden Two (Skinner, 1976), one of the characters rejects the idea that freedom exists. What type of freedom is this? I would argue that this is a philosophical view of freedom as nondeterministic freedom. Nondeterministic freedom can be conceptualized as the view that there are no prior causes to a decision to behave a certain way. In other words, the decisions that people make as to how they will behave are not previously determined. However, there is also the concept of a feeling of freedom. I would argue that this suggests that people are free if they feel free. It is this type of freedom that may have significance for psychological well-being. People may be distressed if they feel they do not have freedom of choice in what they do. It appears that B. F. Skinner discerned the importance of increasing the sense of freedom in his novel. It is stated in Walden Two (Skinner, 1976) that the feeling of freedom is increased partly with planning that is skillful. Also, the sense of freedom may be increased due to there not being punishment in the community. Without punishment, actions that reflect the avoidance of bad behavior may be attributed to an internal motivation, rather than some external factor.
A key concern in a utopian community would be to find ways to foster good behavior. It appears that this goal is primarily achieved in the community described in Walden Two (Skinner, 1976) by using positive reinforcement techniques. In other words, certain positive consequences would be applied for good behaviors to increase the likelihood that these behaviors would occur in the future. However, this may be problematic because (a) what is reinforcing can change over time, (b) there may be major individual differences in what is reinforcing, and (c) many internal factors may be primary influences on behavior. The leaders of the community may need to have a great deal of knowledge of all of the community members to be effective in using positive reinforcement techniques. This could be viewed as a primary reason why the positive reinforcement approach to fostering good behavior may not be realistic. Also, one can be skeptical about not using punishment as a strategy to modify bad behaviors. How would bad behaviors be addressed in the community? The answer to this question was not clear to me. Nonetheless, there may be two basic strategies. First, the bad behavior could be ignored. This could lead to a decrease in the behavior if the behavior was partly reinforced because of the reactions of others. Second, the opposite of the bad behavior could be positively reinforced. If the good behavior is incompatible with the bad behavior, it could lead to a reduction in the bad behavior. However, there could be many internal factors that cause the bad behaviors, and thus strategies based on external factors may not be effective.
B.F. Skinner’s Walden Two (Skinner, 1976) can be viewed as one of greatest works of utopian fiction. This may be true partly because of the inclusion of information on how behavior can be changed. His approach to behavior change may be significant because he presented a possible way to modify behavior without restricting a person’s sense of freedom. Because a sense of freedom may be important for psychological well-being and the expression of individuality, his view on behavior modification can be considered an ideal approach. Nonetheless, there are some unanswered questions. These include how the positive reinforcement techniques can implemented in a feasible manner, and how bad behavior would be addressed without the use of punishment.
Skinner, B. F. (1976). Walden two. (reissued). New York: Macmillan.