Skinner’s Cultural Practices Applied to Daylight Savings
By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D
Founding Editor,


It’s daylight savings time again…that time when hundreds of millions of people “spring forward” and move their clocks forward an hour for the summer months.  But do you know the history behind this peculiar practice and the reasons for its existence?  If not, you might want to check out LiveScience  for a succinct overview. 

It all started with Ben Franklin.  When he was ambassador to France, he chided Parisians for their infamous night-owl ways.  He pointed out that, instead of burning candles late at night, the sun provides light as soon as it rises.  One of his ideas for getting folks to rise earlier was firing cannons at sunrise…needless to say, Ben’s ideas gained little traction.

Skip ahead to the early 1900s and William Willett made several pushes in English Parliament for daylight savings, which were all shot down.  His rationale was similar to Franklin’s — to seize the day and take advantage of every hour of sunlight you have.

Well, there’s nothing like a war to motivate people, and World War I was just the push needed to get daylight savings into practice — first in Germany, then Britain, followed later by the United States.  The rationale given for all countries was to save energy for the war effort.  The more exposure to sunlight you have, the less you need to use your lights.

After World War I, daylight savings was repealed by Congress but returned after the attack on Pearl Harbor.  From then on, it stuck.  After the war, a period of time ensued wherein cities were free to stick with daylight savings or discard it, which created chaos in some parts of the country.  After the Uniform Time Act of 1966 required these decisions to be made at the state level, only Arizona and Hawaii discarded the practice.
LiveScience points to other benefits beyond energy savings, such as fewer traffic accidents due to fewer cars traveling at night and more time for daylight exercise.  However, a permanent daylight savings can have unexpected repercussions, as happened recently in Russia, but see the article for details.

Daylight savings is a prime example that illustrates the components of Skinner’s (1953, 1981) cultural selection and cultural practices.  From his perspective, practices (i.e., ways of behaving) are spread based on their utility to the practicing group rather than the individuals themselves.  According to Skinner, practices are regulated by controlling agencies based on group effects, like the incidence and prevalence of events in a given population.  

In the case of daylight savings, the controlling agencies are government institutions.  The practice should, in theory anyway, maintain only as long as desirable group effects are observed — in this case energy savings would be the primary factor.  However, questions remain as to the effectiveness of daylight savings on this particular outcome.  Nevertheless, other beneficial outcomes may be present, such as increased daylight for retailers and sporting events that benefit from daylight.

Public policy is a slippery slope however.  The question still remains that, even if such outcomes are affected, who is to say these outcomes are “good” or “bad” and justifiable to the extent that hundreds of millions of people’s sleep schedules should change because of it?  That is a topic for another day.

Let us know if you think daylight savings time is beneficial in the comments below, and be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!  


Be the first to comment on "Skinner’s Cultural Practices Applied to Daylight Savings"

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.