Dreaming with Skinner: How Walden Two Continues to Inspire Big Thinking

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bsci21.org

By Daniel B. Sundberg, PhD

bSci21 Contributing Writer

Note: The following was adapted from an article written in the Operants Newsletter (Q4, 2015), published by the B.F. Skinner Foundation

Have you ever sat down and read BF Skinner’s Walden Two? If you haven’t, you may find some surprising inspiration in there.

Much of Skinner’s other work such as Science and Human Behavior (1953), Verbal Behavior (1957), and The Analysis of Behavior: A Program of Self Instruction (1961) is the root of the field of Applied Behavior Analysis. This work has impacted the way we approach human behavior across a broad swath of applications, such as, developmental disabilities, education, training, organizational performance, and athletics.

Yet Skinner’s Walden Two (1948) stands out among his other works, in the way it has inspired people to try and change the world.

Skinner published his first and only piece of fiction, Walden Two, in 1948. When the book first came out, he stated that it sat in relative obscurity for a dozen or so years, however as the 1950’s drew to a close, the popularity of the book grew (today it has more than 4,000 reviews on popular book site www.goodreads.com, 4x as many as Skinner’s next most reviewed book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity).

Perhaps the popularity of the book was because it was about an idea, which began to resonate with more people as time passed. The idea was that taking a “constantly experimental attitude toward everything” (p.25) could allow us to create a society in which people are happy, healthy, and productive. The promise of behavior analysis to create a flourishing utopia, a vibrant alternative to the grind of daily life, through science and experimentation, has inspired a dream in many who have read this work.

In the years that followed, some took that dream and worked to make it a reality.

Several real communities sprang up in the 1960s and ‘70s, taking inspiration from Skinner’s book, to create societies held together by science, and a scientific approach to improving the human condition. While many of these societies have collapsed, or faded from existence, some are still with us today, such as Los Horcones in Mexico, Lake Village Homestead in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and Twin Oaks in Louisa, Virginia.

Yet, my favorite dreamer inspired by B.F. Skinner’s work was OBM legend Bill Abernathy. If you are not familiar with Abernathy, he is most famous for his brilliant work in devising pay for performance, and organizational performance systems (If you are looking for a book to get you both frustrated and excited about how much behavior analysis can change the workplace, check out Sin of Wages (Abernathy, 1996)).

In 2014 Abernathy published his take on creating Walden Two in The Liberated Workplace: Transitioning to Walden Three. Abernathy shows that we do not need to flee society at large to begin creating a Behavioral Utopia. He suggests instead that the workplace is the perfect vessel for creating the alternative to the daily grind described by Skinner.

In Walden Two, Skinner reimagined our work lives, in which his goal was to “get rid of the work, not the worker” (p.69) to make the society as effective and efficient as possible. Abernathy took this idea to heart and built out the specific methods and systems for maximizing the reinforcement available for the participants in the system (the workers), as well as the owners of the system who seek to maximize impact and profitability.

Abernathy’s approach is also highly realistic, and can perhaps be thought of as a shaping step towards creating a Walden Two for society at large. Piggybacking such a society on existing structures, and building them in a way that supports existing systems of reinforcement greatly increases the chances of successfully creating a “Walden Three”. Abernathy’s track record of success shows that this system has in fact been made a reality in many organizations (Abernathy, Duffy, & O’Brien, 1982; Abernathy, 2001, 2014).

Abernathy’s book follows both Skinner’s spirit of changing the world for the better and his pragmatism in making functional change. If you don’t have a chance to pick up the book, here are some great lessons in how to create a Walden Two in the workplace:

  • Focus on results, rather than activity, wherever possible.
  • Reinforce behaviors and results that actually contribute to the output of the organization.
  • Allow people to maximize positive reinforcement through choice and by maximizing their work output.
  • Eliminate bureaucracy wherever possible.
  • Do the above by allowing people to grow within their existing roles, rather than through promotions.

And if you haven’t had a chance to read Walden Two, do so, if for no other reason than to take a look at what it means to dream big, and perhaps have some big dreams of your own.

References:

Abernathy, W. B. (1996). The sin of wages. Memphis, TN: PerfSys Press.

Abernathy, W. B. (2001). An analysis of twelve organizations’ total performance systems. In L. J. Hayes, J. Austin, R. Houmanfar, & M. C. Clayton (Eds.), Organizational Change (pp. 240–272). Reno, NV: Context Press.

Abernathy, W. B. (2014). Beyond the Skinner Box: The Design and Management of Organization-Wide Performance Systems. Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, 34(4), 235–254. http://doi.org/10.1080/01608061.2014.973631

Abernathy, W. B., Duffy, E. M., & O’Brien, R. M. (1982). Multi-branch, multi-systems programs in banking: An organization-wide intervention. In R. O’Brien & A. M. Dickinson (Eds.), Industrial behavior modification (pp. 370–382). Elmsforod, NY: Pergamon Press Inc.

Holland, J. G., & Skinner, B. F. (1961). The analysis of behavior: A program of self instruction. New York: McGraw-Hill.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster Inc.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Action, MA: Copley Publishing Group.

Dan SundbergDaniel B. Sundberg, PhD, is a behavior analyst dedicated to creating meaningful change for individuals and organizations using the science of human behavior. Dan has worked in a variety of organizations, including non-profits. Additionally, Dan spent two years as a university lecturer, teaching undergraduate students how to improve the workplace with behavior analysis

Dan earned his B.A. in Psychology at the University of California at Berkeley, M.S. in Organizational Behavior Management from Florida Institute of Technology, and Ph. D. in Industrial/ Organizational Behavior Management from Western Michigan University. During this time, some of the best thinkers in behavior analysis and OBM mentored Dr. Sundberg as an academician and business professional.

Dan is currently Regional Manager of Consulting Services at ABA Technologies, where he helps to develop and deliver OBM consulting services. Dan is also a guest reviewer for the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management, and in his spare time he creates behavior-based products that allow people to manage their time and accomplish their goals. He also has a special interest in building effective work practices and cultures for start-up companies, and increasing the positive effects of organizations working towards an environmentally sustainable future.  You can contact him at dan@abatechnologies.com.

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