B.F. Skinner: Why Today’s Businesses Need to Take a New Look

Anyone interested in self-improvement should read “The Perfected Self” by David H. Freedman in the current issue of The Atlantic. While the article details the successful weight management activities of the author’s brother, it goes into some detail about the science behind those weight loss programs that have proved to be the most successful over many years. It turns out that the science is based on the pioneering research of the much misunderstood and frequently maligned Harvard professor B.F. Skinner.

Many of Skinner’s critics whom I have encountered in the past, to include college professors, have never read his work. Of course, that does not stop them from repeating and embellishing rumors about the man and his family. In the late 1980s during a visit with Dr. Skinner at his home in Cambridge, he told me, with some amusement, that a colleague had recently heard that his (Skinner’s) daughter had committed suicide. Of course it was not true. I spoke with her last week at the annual Association for Behavior Analysis International (ABAI) convention in Seattle. I can report that she is alive and doing quite well.

I have been a beneficiary of Skinner’s research and have used it as the basis of my work since the early 1960s. I have used it in mental health settings and for the last 40 years in business settings. When I introduced behavioral techniques into mental health settings, I was roundly criticized by most others in the business – mostly psychiatrists and other clinical psychologists. I persisted because it worked. It succeeded where other treatment methods failed. As a matter of fact the psychiatrists let me work with either long-term patients (those hospitalized 20 years or more) or those with diagnoses that had not been responsive to traditional psychotherapy — initially patients with incapacitating phobias. My early successes were discounted by colleagues. They thought that the “cure” wouldn’t last or that it would cause even more severe problems later since, according to their method of treatment, I had not dealt with the underlying problem that caused the phobic or other symptom.

I must admit that the behavioral approach I used was not sexy. A psychiatrist explained to me that agoraphobia (fear of open spaces) was a desire to return to the womb — I guess as the result of some unresolved sexual trauma of early childhood. I was so simple-minded that I thought the problem with agoraphobics was that they were afraid to go outside alone, so that is what I taught them to do. Problem solved. No withdrawals to the corner of the room in a fetal position; no unresolved problems but many more satisfying and productive relationships at home and at work.

My success with these patients resulted in being asked to develop a hospital-wide program for a new 500-bed mental health treatment facility. Using Skinnerian-based treatment, the hospital dramatically reduced recidivism and length of hospital stay. This led to working with delinquent teenagers, which led in turn to working with a remedial tutoring center, which led to my first business venture of teaching supervisors how to help the hard-core unemployed to be successful at work. I must say, in as much modesty as I can muster, that all were spectacularly successful – not due to any brilliance or high intelligence on my part but due simply to the fact all of these approaches were based on the science of behavior.

The advantage of using methods based on scientifically proven principles is that they work every time. Just as the physicist doesn’t have to worry about whether the principles of gravity will hold in a given situation, I can predict, with a high degree of certainty, that the principles of behavior will work in any situation where there is behavior, whether on earth or in space. The laws of behavior are the same in the space station as they are on earth. They are the same in China as they are in the U.S. Contrary to what Dan Pink states in his book, Drive, they are the same with all people, regardless of education level, ethnicity or cultural background. They apply in the lab as they do in the factory. As my Italian friend, Enrico Ottolini, stated when I was worried about ADI’s first work outside the U.S., “This will work in Italy because Italians are people too.”

Although we have not reached the “tipping point” in gaining wide acceptance and understanding of the many benefits that a behavioral approach can bring to problems of living and working in a modern world, an increasing number of people are beginning to experience them.

At ADI we have been helping businesses implement behavioral solutions to a host of organizational problems across the widest range of businesses. I have seen many changes in executives, managers, supervisors and front-line employees and found it even more delightful where it was unexpected. One of the many positive reinforcers that I have experienced over the years is to hear stories from people about how they have solved problems at home, in their schools and in other parts of their community. I have probably heard more than 1,000 times from people who learn this technology, “It works.”

That does not mean that we know it all. Practical applications of Skinner’s work have only been implemented on any scale for about 60 years. As a science that is very young. At the ABAI annual convention, more than 1,000 research papers are presented each year. As I tell all groups we teach, “There is nothing we suggest that you apply to anyone in your organization that you would not want him/her to do to you or that you would not want to do to yourself.” I am reminded of “the sin of the desert.” It is not telling others where the water is located. Why would you want to keep it a secret from your spouse, your children, your bosses and co-workers that positive reinforcement properly applied will benefit everyone’s life? Skinner and I share something in common – it has always been and will always be my passion to change the way the world works. The more people understand and correctly apply a behavioral approach, the closer we all are to creating a highly reinforcing and productive world.