Chronicling the (imagined) last day in the life of Burrhus Frederic 'B. F.' Skinner, the American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor and social philosopher.
‘So tell me: are you superstitious?’ It’s Friday, August 17th, 1990 and I’m in Boston, Massachusetts, standing in the 15th floor penthouse suite of William James Hall on Harvard University’s historic red brick campus. Posing the question is the poster boy (albeit in his eighty-sixth year) for behavioural psychology, Dr. Burrhus Frederic Skinner, popularly ‘B.F.’ and ‘Fred’ to his intimates, who earlier today was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Psychological Association. Superior, with a high-rise forehead and metal-framed bird’s eyes, he’s peering down at me intently, his mouth twisting in an attempt at a smile that's making me slightly uncomfortable. ‘Do I side-step black cats, avoid walking under ladders?’ He's nodding in the affirmative. ‘Guess so. Insurance, you know, “just in case.”’ ‘That makes you a pigeon.’ ‘Say again?’ ‘I wrote a paper: Superstition in the Pigeon - perhaps you’ve read it?’ He cocks his head to one side and blinks. ‘Sorry, not my field.’ ‘I proved a pigeon can be shaped.’ ‘Shaped?’ ‘Responses can be manipulated, using positive or negative reinforcement.’ ‘You’ve lost me.’ ‘Take some hungry pigeons. Place them in laboratory conditions. Feed them regularly. Whatever a bird is doing at the exact moment nourishment appears - pecking the floor, flapping a wing - over time, it’ll link that gesture with reward - the reinforcer - repeating it, like you said, “just in case” there’s a connection between the two. Voila! A superstitious pigeon; why the frown?’ ‘First I’m thinking “who says?” and second I’m thinking “who cares?”’ There’s an edgy stillness. He drops his gaze, cocks his head again (why’s he doing that?) and falls into silence. It’s then I start to take in my surroundings. The penthouse is an off-white cube - a little too airy - with harsh, overhead spot lighting and a floor-to-ceiling window cased in wire panelling, looking out over Harvard’s manicured lawns. Wall-tiled, it’s sketchily furnished with a water cooler in one corner, next to - this is weird - a white plastic box, filled with fine grit: an adult-sized sandpit. Centre-stage is a set of parallel bars, a canary yellow polypropylene bench and matching, low-level table spread with stoneware bowls, offering seeds, legumes, grains: the guy’s clearly a health freak. There’s no carpet; instead a floor covering with the look and feel of sandpaper, reaching a foot or so up the walls. And what’s with that aggressive air conditioning? ‘Miss - what’s your name?’ ‘Doherty - Tiffany Doherty - and I’m sorry if I hurt your - ’ ‘Feelings?’ ‘If you like.’ ‘How unscientific of you, Tiffany.’ ‘I’m not a scientist.’ ‘Oh?’ ‘I’m on the paper’s graduate trainee programme; majored in English lit.’ I’m speculating this is what cold fury looks like - and it isn’t pretty: ‘You’re editor - rather, her personal assistant - assured me The Herald’s Chief Science Correspondent would be interviewing me; instead, I get a cocktail waitress with a High School Diploma who probably still believes in Shakespeare - and doubtless the Easter Bunny!’ The old man’s rocking from side-to-side as he’s spitting these words, his complexion now the colour of blackcurrant sorbet. He takes a step forward; is he going to assault me? I keep my nerve, mollify him. ‘What’s that about Shakespeare?’ ‘I wrote a paper.’ No kidding. I feign curiosity. ‘Really?’ ‘The Alliteration in Shakespeare’s Sonnets: A Study in Literary Behaviour - perhaps you -’ ‘No, I haven’t read it.’ He seems calmer, flapping his arms like he’s cooling himself down. ‘Perch over there and I’ll explain.’ I move over to the canary-yellow bench and perch. He’s eyeing me beadily. ‘How old are you?’ ‘Twenty-six.’ ‘Old for an intern; pretty though. My mistress’s eyes are raven black -’ ‘That’s nice.’ ‘Every tongue says beauty should look so - that’s Shakespeare.’ ‘Quite so.’ Is he hitting on me? My discomfort meter climbs to the high nineties. ‘That’ll be your Irish ancestry; don’t ever go blond, it wouldn’t suit you.’ ‘I’ll bear that in mind.’ ‘Inherited characteristics interest me. And don’t worry, however pretty, you’re not my type.’ ‘O.K.’ What a relief; the gentleman prefers blonds. ‘Unless you’re sprouting feathers I can’t see?’ Meter now reading one-hundred-and-five. ‘Not the last time I looked.’ I'm smiling weakly, worrying he might want to see for himself. Now he’s standing over me, like he’s about to deliver one of his lectures. Note to diary: never again step-up for an assignment because no-one else will take it. ‘You’re familiar with the literary device of alliteration?’ ‘Is that a trick question?’ ‘You most probably believe - been conditioned to believe - there exists in Shakespeare’s works a quality - an art form - consciously crafted by The Bard.’ ‘That’s what I read.’ ‘Then prepare thyself for a shock.’ He’s bobbing his head up and down like one of those cage-bound birds in a pet store window, his maniacal grin revealing trick-or-treat dentures. ‘Fact: word-association studies show the presence of a sound in speech raises the odds of that same sound being repeated by the user, several times over.’ ‘So?’ ‘Sooo, repetition of a sound - producing alliteration, rhyme, meter, poetry if you will - is a consequence, not of conscious effort, but merely accidental.’ ‘Excuse me, but that sounds like a load of -’ ‘Shakespeare?’ ‘Just how did you arrive at your conclusion, Doctor Skinner?’ ‘An inscrutable formula, deftly weaving tabulation with calculation, applied to one thousand four hundred of the Great One’s lines.’ ‘But you’re claiming -’ ‘Not claiming, it’s scientific fact.’ ‘Claiming Shakespeare was some kind've pre-programmed machine.’ ‘Exactly. Shakespeare might as well have pulled his poesy out of a hat.’ How to respond? ‘It’s gotten awful chilly in here.’ ‘Any warmer might trigger a moult. I’m feeling a little peckish; care to share some millet?’ Did I hear right? Moult? Millet? I’m wondering if he’s going to come up with anything quotable. ‘I’m good - but please, carry on.’ ‘You’re not taking notes. Are you sulking? About Shakespeare? Understandable. Remember though, it’s not your fault you allowed yourself to be suckered-in by the humanists. I was once. And it nearly broke me.’ He’s coming over all misty-eyed. What “nearly broke” him? I want to ask but it would be wrong to pry. ‘Doctor Skinner,’ ‘Fred.’ ‘Fred. What nearly broke you?’ ‘My dream.’ ‘Sleep-wise or ambition-wise?’ He moves to the low table, head bobbing all the while, leans forward, starts dipping his head in a dish of seed. This guy’s been on his own toooo long. I glance down at my shoes, pretending I haven’t noticed, waiting politely while he’s chowing-down his rations. ‘Both. As a boy I dreamt of becoming North America’s answer to James Joyce. I tried to live the subjective life - not easy in a Pennsylvania railroad town circa 1920; immersed myself in literature: Shakespeare, Chaucer, Shelley. Had a lot of time for Shelley. Ever read Mont Blanc?’ ‘Might’ve.’ ‘Some say that gleams of a remoter world visit the soul in sleep. Every night I hoped it’d be my soul’s turn to get a visit. Never did. Know why?’ I shrug. ‘Because Shelley and all the rest of the bunch were peddling a big fat lie. You ever seen a human soul? Studied it in a test tube?’ ‘That’s impossible.’ ‘Thank you!’ ‘For what?’ ‘Recognising a simple truth: the soul doesn’t exist. There’s no such organism. I was torturing myself for nothing. I was never going to get a visit. There’s nothing for Shelley’s remoter world to visit.’ Time to cool things down. Think of a question, any question. ‘Were you an only child?’ ‘Had a kid brother; well-liked, sporty. Died when he was sixteen.’ Great question. ‘I’m sorry.’ ‘Don’t be. He was a dullard.’ That was unexpected. Could be copy here, yet. I take out my notepad and pencil. ‘So, getting back to your dream?’ ‘Oh, I stubbornly pursued it; graduated from Hamilton.’ ‘In?’ ‘English lit, as you’d call it - but my parents weren’t at all supportive. I brokered a deal with them to allow me to convert the family attic into a writer’s den and give me a year - I call it Skinner’s Dark Year - to prove I had it in me to write a novel.’ ‘And?’ ‘It was 1924. My father’s law practice was struggling, not because of the economy, which was on the up - the Town just didn’t like him - and I was under increasing pressure to put something in the pot. I, I, - excuse me.’ He struts over to the water cooler, sipping directly from the faucet, then something out the window catches his eye: ‘Coo-coo-oo! Coo-coo-oo! Coo-coo-oo! Oo! Just reminding those pigeons who’s cock of the walk round here.’ Does he know how crazy he’s sounding? I tap nail extension on notepad. ‘Focus.’ He’s clearing his throat. ‘It dawned on me I’d been misled, misunderstood, by Shakespeare, Shelley, my parents, their parents, our neighbours’ parents, the mail man’s parents - ’ ‘I get it.’ ‘I was a victim. So what if I couldn’t pen so much as an interesting grocery list, it wasn’t down to me - no, no, no! The blame lay in my environment. And do you know how I found out? I want to ask if it was from a pigeon; turns out I was in the zone. ‘From Pavlov’s dog.’ ‘You’re flickering again.’ ‘A book, from the Town’s library. Introduced me to Pavlov, his dog and a host of other like-minded individuals. I’d experienced a genuine, all-American epiphany; realised my calling: introducing Fred Skinner, Behavioural Psychologist.’ ‘But did you have any background?’ ‘Nope. But that wasn’t important; you only had to take a peek at John Watson to realise anyone could have a shot at it.’ ‘So you gave up your dream, on a dime. Didn’t fight for it. Wasn’t that a little weak?’ ‘Accepting my limitations as the work of nurture over nature, of experience learned at my father’s knee - making everything his fault - wasn’t weakness, it was -’ ‘I think I know what’s coming.’ ‘Scientific fact. That’s the neat thing about behaviourism: we’re each a tabula rasa -’ ‘A what?’ ‘Clean slate - you, me, a pigeon - shaped by our surroundings. We’ve no control, so nothing can ever truly be our fault. You and I are just complex pigeons. Now d’ya see? He’s standing, stretching out a leg, beating his arms - is he O.K.? ‘Are you feeling all right?’ ‘Cramp.’ ‘Oh.’ ‘How d’ya walk in those, anyway? What are they - five, six inches?’ ‘Roundabout. I live in heels. They’re my passion.’ ‘Passion. There you go again. So unscientific.’ ‘Whatever; you were telling me how you discovered your calling: what happened next?’ ‘I announced to my parents I was off to Harvard, to dedicate myself to the sciences. That night they broke out the bottle of sherry they’d been keeping for Thanksgiving; my father became quite emotional, said to me “This is a tremendous relief, son; I’m not sure how many more of your insights into the spirit of beauty your mother and I could have stomached.” A better man would have socked him one on the nose.’ “A better man?” That’s one big step-down statement coming from Doctor I-Wrote-A-Paper. ‘Made him pay, though.’ Oh gees, he’s not going to tell me he buried Pop under their patio, is he? ‘How so?’ ‘My expensive schooling, extravagant lifestyle, the comfortable house my wife and I occupied, our daughters’ private tuition, plus the extras: numerous holidays, a series of automobiles - did I miss anything?’ Wow. That’s truly horrible. This man has no spine. I’d’ve rather run with the patio scenario. ‘Young woman, you’re looking disgustingly pale; have some seeds.’ True, I am a little light-headed. What the hell: seed never killed anyone - did it? Maybe I’ll pass. ‘Been a long day - and for you. The APA award’s a big deal.’ ‘About time. Should have come my way years ago. Jealousy is a destructive force.’ ‘Why jealous?’ ‘Pigeons.’ I’m glazing while he’s listing-off his feathery ‘firsts’: falsity in the pigeon, self-awareness in the pigeon, ping-pong playing pigeons (pinch me - am I really hearing this?), Project Pigeon - ‘Project Pigeon?’ ‘Top secret, financed by the Government. A bird inside the nosecone of a Pelican guided missile. Why the foolish giggling?’ ‘Kamikaze pigeons? You’re teasing me!’ ‘They’re smart, easy to handle and don’t get airsick. One more snigger and I’ll deem this interview concluded.’ Oops. He’s serious. ‘Initially the Office of Scientific Research and Development were keen. After completing primary training, the birds underwent tests to assess their psychological fitness for battle - what was that?’ ‘Hiccups.’ ‘We fired pistols mere inches from the birds’ heads; positioned male alongside female, to determine whether either sex may be inclined to abandon its duty, when faced with tempting alternatives: I’ve warned you.’ ‘Strep throat.’ ‘But the final presentation, to the big-wigs in Washington, wasn’t a success. Oh, they were polite - but it just takes one to start everyone off - like you; know what they said to me at the end? “Skinner, why don’t you go out and get drunk?”’ His head droops. He rises, stretches his arms and struts over to the sand pit, climbs in and settles himself down, like a broody hen. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Samuel Butler compared writing a poem to laying an egg: neither takes any skill, but poet and hen feel a lot better afterwards.’ ‘And?’ ‘I’m just testing his theory.’ Enough already. I’m not being witness to an old man attempting to lay an egg in a sandpit. ‘Anyone looking after you up here?’ ‘The University acts as unofficial guardian; keeps me in this big bird cage, wheels me out on special occasions - like today.’ ‘Where’re your minders?' ‘They’re here: closed circuit TV, alarms; we’re surrounded.’ Time to go. ‘I’ll be off now, contact you with the galley proof, for your approval.’ ‘I’m too pooped to lay anything now, anyway. And it’s getting mighty close to roosting time.’ With that he eases himself up, steps out of his sandpit and in one movement, flies up onto the parallel bars. ‘That was incredible!’ ‘Not really. It’s just the way we pigeons are built. Switch the lights off on your way out.’
Monday August 20th. I’m in with The Herald’s lifestyle correspondent, discussing my piece. ‘Nice work, Tiffany. You write well.’ ‘Thank you.’ ‘Shame the old boy won’t get to read it.’ ‘Why?’ ‘Fell off his perch, not metaphorically - literally.’ ‘He’s dead?’ ‘Seems he’d been playing around on some gym equipment: an octogenarian Schwarzenegger. Took him to the General but died hours later. Had leukaemia; knew his days were numbered, apparently. You O.K?’ ‘It’s just a shock.’ ‘My mistress’s eyes are raven black, every tongue says beauty should look so.’ ‘What made you say that?’ ‘His last words, before diamorphine kicked-in. Sorry, I can see you clearly took to the guy.’ ‘He was…a sad old bird. Here’s a question: are you superstitious?’
Word count: 2,500
Reflective Commentary: My study of Creative writing introduced me to a literary style I should not otherwise have considered experimenting with - the biographical - prompting me to attempt the form for this project. Flowing from my prior study of Discovering Psychology, I revisited that module’s textbook and was reminded of the ‘behaviourists’, singling-out B.F. Skinner for further, in-depth enquiry. According to Derek Neale ‘Your ambition in using research…is to create as full a picture as possible so that…the reader is convinced by the complexity of the world you are realising (Neale, 2006, p. 326). With that in mind I embarked upon a period of intensive investigation into my subject’s life, producing a wealth of exploratory material (academic papers, biographical profiles, interview, lecture notes and so forth, as noted in my bibliography). I then realised the prime challenge before me lay in shaping this unwieldy mass of copy into an engaging, readable form, ensuring that I focused on producing a biographical characterisation, as demanded by this module, rather than journalistic reportage and that my objective should be, as Blake Morrison puts it ‘to provide…an imaginative insight’ that would offer ‘new ways of perceiving a famous figure.’ (Morrison, 2005). An additional consideration emerged because, as Alfie Kohn comments, Skinner was ‘a hard man to get to know’ (Kohn, 1984), indicating critical assessment of my sources of information, or ‘reading between the lines’ - would be a key element in determining the ultimate success of my finished piece. I decided the traditional presentation of biographical narrative would be most appropriate, ‘in which prose links up sections of memories’ (Haslam, 2006, p. 295) and to adopt a first person narrator: ‘It’s Friday, August 17th, 1990 and I’m in Boston, Massachusetts, standing in the 15th floor penthouse suite of William James Hall on Harvard University’s historic red brick campus.’ To avoid the pitfall of producing a potted history, I describe events that take place in just one afternoon, in one setting, allowing the dialogue to move the story forward, intended to allow the reader to stay focused without bombarding them with too much information; I fell into this trap with my A215 TMA02, trying to cram every suggested literary device and technique into 2,200 words and producing so dizzying a narrative that I was in danger of inducing nausea in the reader. So here I have focused on staying focused and avoiding deviation. I also decided to experiment with tense; I had not used a present progressive tense before and decided to be a bit brave and try it: ‘Superior, with a high-rise forehead and metal-framed bird’s eyes, he’s peering down at me intently, his mouth twisting in an attempt at a smile that's making me slightly uncomfortable.’ The theme of crushed literary ambition eased only by a total submersion in scientific endeavour is conveyed using dialogue (‘I get a cocktail waitress with a High School Diploma who probably still believes in Shakespeare - and doubtless the Easter Bunny!’) and imagery (‘The old man’s rocking from side-to-side as he’s spitting these words, his complexion now the colour of blackcurrant sorbet.’). The dialogue was the main focus of revision as I worked to establish a ‘strongly authentic’ voice, ‘using slang, faulty grammar and colloquial language’ (Anderson, 2006, p. 101-126). For instance ‘You most probably believe - been conditioned to believe - there exists in Shakespeare’s works a quality - an art form - consciously crafted by The Bard’ contrasting with ‘First I’m thinking “who says?” and second I’m thinking “who cares?”’; I took particular care to make Doctor Skinner’s speeches verbose, juxtaposed with Tiffany’s shorter, blunter responses and private thoughts, accentuating their age disparity and states of mind. A major revision was changing ‘Me! The U. S of A’s national treasure - a dangerous intellectual who was once very nearly considered for a six-figure book deal’ to ‘You’re editor - rather, her personal assistant - assured me The Herald’s Chief Science Correspondent would be interviewing me.’ - a revision that seeks to portray Skinner not as a blustering megalomaniac, but rather as a misunderstood and disappointed man, which my research indicates is probably a truer portrayal.
Anderson, L. (2006) Creative Writing: a Workbook with Readings, Oxfordshire, Routledge
Luke, N.M., (2003), ‘Analysis of Poetic Literature Using B. F. Skinner's Theoretical Framework from Verbal Behavior’, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior, 19, 107-114 [online]. Available at. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2755420/ (Accessed 14/03/2015)
"I therefore decided to say No henceforth to every suggestion, request or inquiry whether inward or outward. It was the only simple formula which was sure and safe. It was difficult to practise at first and often called for heroism but I persevered and hardly ever broke down completely. It is now many years since I said Yes."
O'Brien, F. (1993). The Third Policeman, London: Flamingo Modern Classics, p.31