Moment of Indiana History

Radical behavior

Although not associated with any specific school of psychological thought, Indiana University’s Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences was once home to the biggest name in behaviorism. Regardless of a lifelong affiliation with Harvard, B.F. Skinner did some of his most notorious work while chair of psychology at IU.

An advocate of the idea that behavior is determined by consequences, Pennsylvania native Burrhus Frederic Skinner hung up his autographed portrait of Pavlov when he moved into his Bloomington office in 1945. Skinner was a family man by this time, with a wife and two young daughters—a fact that informed the direction of his work.

The chairman’s research burst into the culture at large in October 1945 when the Ladies Home Journal published Skinner’s first-person account of his development and use of a device promoting the, quote, “mechanization of baby care.” Skinner described how he had devised an enclosed, climate-controlled crib with a plexiglass window, for his eleven-month-old daughter Debby. The invention, later marketed as an “air crib” or “baby tender”, proved controversial and easily confused with the so-called “Skinner boxes” developed for the study of behavior in rats and pigeons.

Family life may have also been the source for the radical behaviorist’s only significant foray into fiction writing, undertaken during his Bloomington chapter. Having previously abandoned his youthful literary aspirations, during the summer of 1945 Skinner wrote the novel Walden Two, a utopian vision of a behaviorally engineered society in which adults pursue satisfying work while children are tended collectively.

It was also during Skinner’s tenure in Bloomington that Indiana hosted the first meeting of the Society of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, in 1946. Within two years, Skinner accepted a position at Harvard, where he spent the rest of his professional life.

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