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BAAM Behavioral History Page

BAAM will post links to historical items of interest to behavior analysts on this page. If you have an item you would like to contribute, please forward it and the link or links to us via the BAAM suggestions page. (Go directly to suggestion page).

"Thanks...I guess..:" The "Unabomber" credits behavior modification with being more scientific than other forms of psychology (Go to the story)

B.F. Skinner's psychic abilities: The 1979 Cliff's Notes for B.F. Skinner's Walden Two seems to credit the behaviorist with psychic abilities. (Go to the story)

Numerology meets Behaviorism:  Facade.com reports on B.F. Skinner's numerological analysis. (Go to the story.)

Behavioral History
Online Articles | Classic Articles | Equipment | Odds and Ends

Online Articles and Books

Behaviourism: The Early Years" (Robert Wozniak). Excerpt from Wozniak, R. H. (Ed.). (1994). Reflex, habit and implicit response: The early elaboration of theoretical and methodological behaviourism 1915-1928. London: Routledge/Thoemmes. Wozniak discusses some elements of early classical behaviorism. (www.brynmawr.edu/Acads/Psych/rwozniak/behaviorism.html)

Classic Articles and Books

B. F. Skinner's "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?" (1950). Often mistaken as a rejection of theories in psychology, this classic article describes and compares three distinct types of psychological theories and discusses their usefulness for developing a comprehensive science of behavior. (Click here for a full length electronic transcription version of "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?" from York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.)

Edward Thorndike's Animal Intelligence (1911): Much more than just cats in puzzle boxes, Animal Intelligence was a pioneering attempt at a comprehensive experimental analysis of the behavior of organisms. This book is an extended version of Thorndike's 1898 article "Animal Intelligence," which is itself a classic and where most of the psychological community was introduced to the concept of reinforcement via Thorndike's "law of effect." (Click here for a full length electronic transcription version of Animal Intelligence from York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.)

John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner's "Conditioned Emotional Reactions" (1920): The most cited study in the history of psychology, Watson and Rayner described the use of Pavlovian conditioning to condition a fear response to a rat from a startle reaction to a sudden loud noise. Although not methodologically rigorous, this study nevertheless has become the most often cited and described example of the role of classical conditioning in emotional development. (Click here for a full length electronic transcription version of "Conditioned Emotional Reactions" from York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.)

Wolf, Risley, and Mees's "Application of Operant Conditioning Procedures to the Behavior Problems of an Autistic Child:" (Behaviour Research and Therapy, 1964, v. 1, pp. 305-312).This is the classic "Dicky" article that set the stage for all behavioral treatment of autism to follow. Dicky was an autistic child who also was at risk for blindness caused by failing to wear corrective lenses after a cataract operation. This article introduced the earliest applied behavior analysts, then called "behavior modifiers," to the reversal design and time-out as means of functional analysis and non-violent control of severe behavior problems. In a tribute to Wolf in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis (2005, v. 38, pp. 279-287), Todd Risley describes some of the history behind the pioneering effort:

Wolf accepted the challenge of getting Dicky, a post-cataract surgery 3-year-old boy with autism who displayed temper tantrums and self-injury and who resided in a psychiatric hospital 50 miles distant, to wear glasses. Thus began a year of weekly drives that culminated in the premier study of behavior modification. Wolf had to develop techniques to deal with Dicky's tantrums and sleeping and eating problems, and to establish wearing glasses, basic socialization, and functional speech. After having just discovered the power of adult attention for young children, and realizing that the staff could not simply ignore temper tantrums, especially violent ones with mild self-abuse, Wolf decided to prescribe a response to tantrums that would minimize any social reinforcing effect of the necessary attention and counterbalance that reinforcement with a period of social isolation. The prescription for tantrums was to place Dicky, calmly and without comment, in his room until the tantrum ceased and at least 10 min had passed. When tantrums were under control and after wearing glasses had been hand shaped, Dicky began to throw his glasses occasionally. When the social isolation prescription was applied,glasses throwing decreased from about twice per day to zero. But the hospital staff doubted that it was due to the procedure because Dicky didn't seem to mind being taken to his room; he just rocked in his rocking chair and hummed to himself. Because throwing glasses was both less serious and more reliably measured than tantrums, Wolf agreed to discontinue the procedure-and glasses throwing soon increased to the previous level. The social isolation procedure was reinstated, and glasses throwing decreased again to zero. (pp.281-282)

That study with Dicky and three follow-up studies are also noteworthy for discovering how operant conditioning techniques could be applied to shape verbal imitation and meaningful speech in children with severe disabilities in the now familiar discrete-trials approach (Risley & Wolf, 1964, 1967; Wolf, Risley, Johnston, Harris, & Allen, 1967; Wolf, Risley, & Mees, 1964). These studies, which also included shaping social skills and toilet training together with Wolf's functional assessment of vomiting, started a movement in behavioral psychology to apply operant conditioning microanalysis and microteaching techniques to behavior problems of people with severe disabilities, culminating in a new profession: the board-certified behavior analyst. (p. 282)

In addition to introducing the applied behavior analysis community to the reversal design, functional analysis, and time out, Wolf, Risley, and Mees set the stage for what would come to be called "social validity." The final sentence of the Dicky article, which starts out as though it is a simple description of a follow-up, may be the best and most concise summary of the spirit and ethic of all good behavioral treatments:

According to a report from the mother six months after the child's return home, Dicky continues to wear his glasses, does not have tantrums, has no sleeping problems, is becoming increasingly verbal, and is a new source of joy to the members of his family. (p. 312)

(Click here for a link to the original DIcky article; For Risley's tribute to Mont Wolf in the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis in pdf format, click here.)

Yerkes and Morgulis's "The Method of Pawlow in Animal Psychology" (1909). The spelling of "Pavlov" as "Pawlow" reveals the source material for this piece as being German translations. This article is the first extended description of Pavlov's conditioning techniques in English. Despite being published in The Psychological Bulletin, several years would pass before the importance of Pavlov's work was fully recognized in the United States. It was not unusual for researchers to mistakenly conclude that the method was limited in scope and restricted to the study of conditioning of glandular activity. Watson's 1914 book, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, contains only a brief description of Pavlov's work. By 1916, Watson recognized classical conditioning as a general principle of behavior. (Click here for a full length electronic transcription version of "The Method of Pawlow in Animal Psychology" from York University in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.)


Brass-Instrument Psychology Equipment and Devices: The period of "Brass-Instrument Psychology" occupied the last decades of the 19th and the first of 20th century. Many devices were developed during that time to measure reaction times, psychophysical thresholds, visual and auditory perception, and other aspects of behavior. These devices usually operated without electrical power and were often constructed of brass. When B.F. Skinner speaks of using a "kymograph" in his early work, you can see here examples of the kind of device he was talking about. (Click here to link to the Brass-Instrument Site at the University of Toronto.)

B.F. Skinner's World War II pigeon-guided bomb project: During World War Two, a mechanical or electronic technology to successfully guide bombs and missiles to their targets had not been developed. Behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner was given a grant to develop a method of using pigeons as the guidance system of air-dropped bombs. Despite successful testing, the army was ultimately not interested in the technology. Additional information about this project is available in B. F. Skinner's article: "Pigeons in a Pelican" (American Psychologist, January 1960; also published in Skinner's book, Cumulative Record). (Click here to see photos of equipment exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution)


Odds and Ends

John B. Watson's analysis of animal savants: In his 1914 textbook, Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology, behaviorist John B. Watson gave considerable coverage to some early celebrated cases of "animal savants," including "Clever Hans" and the "Horses of Elberfeld." Watson's analysis in the chapter, "The Limits of Training in Animals," was characteristically careful and empirical. Watson noted that the extravagant claims that horses and dogs had human-like intelligence did not stand up to empirical analysis. When the experiments were done carefully enough, the subtle cues were revealed that enabled the animals to give apparently correct answers to complex questions. In the case of "Clever Hans," Oskar Pfungst showed that the horse started and stopped tapping its hoof when the questioner changed posture in response to the horse's "answer." The analysis of the behavior of the Horses of Elberfeld and some of the "talking dogs" was less satisfactory. However, it was clear from the information available to Watson that the animals were not "intelligent," and their skills were significantly exaggerated as well. Watson's detailed analysis is quite helpful for understanding the degree of exaggeration because he reproduced the critical data. The Horses of Elberfeld, for instance, produced correct answers only about 10% of the time. This led Watson to conclude that the seemingly correct answers were not actually correct, but were lucky guesses or due to cuing. Like modern investigators of psychic phenomenon, such as James Randi, Watson was less than optimistic about the ability of most scientists to tease out the relevant variables:

From time to time there loom above the level of the behaviorist's horizon reports of individual animals or groups of animals that affirm that at last a prodigy has been found which possesses something special in the way of a behavior equipment. Such animals have never been discovered in the laboratories devoted to the study of animal behavior. That the highly gifted animal should not thus appear in the laboratories is understandable when one considers that investigations have heretofore been rather narrowly concerned with the instincts and the sensory and motor habits which appear in a laboratory environment. The gifted animal has usually been developed by the amateur. Through the animal's contact with its owner and with other animals there arise highly complex modes of response. The training methods are not controlled and no scientific attempts are made to analyze the exact nature of the stimulus to which the animal responds. From an anthropomorphic standpoint the animal apparently is reacting as a human being would act under the same circumstances. In a short time the doings of the animal get noised abroad and it becomes necessary for some trained investigator to step in and reduce the chaos to some semblance of order (interpretation of acts where there is ignorance of training methods is not an easy task). Within recent years several animals have appeared which have caused a certain amount of consternation among investigators who have gone to examine into the phenomena. The situation is exceedingly like that which appears in the investigation of so-called occult phenomena. Some new medium arises. Some prominent man visits the medium and becomes mystified. A scientific man, usually a physicist, is selected to investigate her. The physicist reports an elaborate series of tests which shows that the medium is not using concealed wires, magnets, mirrors, or other physical equipment. The physicist himself may become "convinced." The mystery grows. Finally the psychologist makes the test and finds some simple trick which will account for the phenomenon. The number of such alleged occult phenomena from telepathy to spiritualistic converse, which have been investigated and found wanting in scientific or philosophical interest, has been so numerous that now it is very difficult to get a psychologist who values his reputation to undertake such an investigation. In the same way, when a wonderful animal appears, zoologists, botanists, and physiologists are hastened to the scene. A commission is appointed and the mystery deepens. Usually when some man who is familiar with the methods of training animals and with animals' methods of responding is found, the explanation, while not necessarily simple, smacks not at all of the mysterious. This situation in the past, with regard to the animal world, has not been wholly without beneficial effect. In the first place, it has brought the behaviorist face to face with the fact that there may be depths in the animal to which he has not descended and cannot descend except by adopting a part, at least, of the technique of the amateur, viz., that of living a large part of his time with the animal and complicating the methods of training (as is done for the child). That this meritorious effect has been produced is shown by the fact that there are investigators in behavior who are willing to devote a large number of years to the study of a single animal or at most a small group of such animals. The German station on the Canary Isles is a case in point. Along with certain biological investigations will go detailed studies on the behavior of the anthropoid apes. It is certain that this tendency to specialize on one or at most a few animals will become more common. Since the higher anthropoids are nearest to man in their equipment and since their tenure of life is long under natural conditions it is to be expected that students will undertake work upon them with greater willingness than upon lower forms. To do such work effectively there is great need of an anthropoid ape station open to American students. The second generally good effect the study of the gifted animals has had upon the behavior work comes from the fact that in making an analysis it is often necessary to undertake a study of the sensitivity of their receptors, field of vision, limen of sensitivity for moving objects, etc. (Watson, 1914, pp. 297-299)


Watson, J.B. (1914). Behavior: An introduction to comparative psychology. New York: Henry Holt. (Full text)

Unabomber objects to the effectiveness and scientific basis of applied behavior analysis: In a letter to the New York Times newspaper, the "Unabomber," Theodore Kaczynski, explained why he targeted "behavior modification:"

We have nothing against universities or scholars as such. All the university people whom we have attacked have been specialists in technical fields. (We consider certain areas of applied psychology, such as behavior modification, to be technical fields.) We would not want anyone to think that we have any desire to hurt professors who study archaeology, history, literature or harmless stuff like that. The people we are out to get are the scientists and engineers, especially in critical fields like computers and genetics...(New York Times, 4-26-1995, p. 1; boldface added)

The late James McConnell, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, was one of Kaczynski's targets. McConnell, the author of the highly successful introductory psychology textbook, Understanding Human Behavior, was sometimes labeled a "behaviorist" by the media. It is likely that Kaczynski, a University of Michigan student, had heard of McConnell and his promotion of "behavior modification." The bomb delivered to McConnell on June 15th, 1985 was opened by a student who was seriously injured but later recovered. (Court TV Coverage).

B.F. Skinner, a critic of cognitive psychology, apparently possessed "precognition:" The Cliff's Notes for Skinner's book, Walden Two, contains the following passage suggesting that he had psychic abilities:

The books that Skinner (or some character in Walden Two) most often refers to are Samuel Butler's Erewhon, Aldous Huxley's Brave New World, and George Orwell's 1984. Terms such as Doublespeak, BIG BROTHER, and phrases such as "Oh, brave new world" are frequently mentioned in conversations at Walden Two. Therefore, an examination of the basic ideas of each work will further illuminate Walden Two. (McGowen & Roberts, 1979, p. 50)

Readers of Walden Two might recognize the phrase, "Oh, brave new world" as actually coming from Shakespeare's "The Tempest." No reader will find quotes from Orwell's 1984 in Walden Two. 1984 was published in 1949. Walden Two was written in 1945 and published in 1948. Thus, Skinner could not have included quotes from a book he had not yet read.  (For more information see: "Case Histories in the Great Power of Steady Misrepresentation" by J.T. Todd & E.K.Morris, American Psychologist, Nov. 1992, pp. 1441-1453.)

B.F. Skinner's Numerological Analysis:  We at BAAM do not really understand this.  But, as one of the oddest "Odd and Ends" we could find, we feel compelled to report that B.F. Skinner's numerological analysis is available online at Facade.com.  Numerology claims to analyze attributes by assigning numerical values to the letters of a person's name.  B.F. Skinner's "birthmates" include Akira Kurosawa, Ayn Rand, George Washington, L. Ron Hubbard, Neil Gaiman, Walt Disney, Werner Heisenberg. Facade describes itself as "the first and most popular web site devoted to Tarot, Runes, I Ching, Biorhythms, Numerology, and other forms of spiritual introspection."