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RUTHERFORD, A. (2009) (1)

Beyond the Box: B. F. Skinner's Technology of Behavior From Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s

Toronto, Ontario: University of Toronto Press

pp. xi-210, paperback, ISBN: 978-0-8020-9618-0

Alexandra Rutherford is a rare professional: She earned her doctoral degree at York University's History and Theory of Psychology program and Clinical Psychology program, and she specializes in B. F. Skinner and behavior analysis (e.g., Rutherford, n.d., 2000, 2003). She combines her training, interests, and scholarship in Beyond the Box: B. F. Skinner's Technology of Behavior From Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s (2009). (2)

Her book is a history of early applied behavior analysis (formerly, behavior modification), focused on the technology of behavior and organized around six topics. In broad outline, they are as follows: (a) the contributions of Skinner to improving human life (e.g., the baby tender, the teaching machine); (b) the early operant research of Charles Ferster (e.g., children with autism), Ogden Lindsley (e.g., psychiatric patients), and Sidney Bijou (typically developing children); (c) the efforts of Teodoro Ayllon and Nathan Azrin on a token economy in a psychiatric institution (Anna State Hospital); (d) the related efforts in criminal justice by Harold Cohen and James Filipczak (Contingencies Applicable to Special Education), by Carl Clements, John McKee, and Michael Milan (e.g., Experimental Manpower Laboratory for Corrections), by Scott Geller, and by Norman Carlson, Roy Gerard, and Albert Scheckenback (Special Treatment and Rehabilitative Training program); (e) the self-help work of Charles Ferster, of Richard Stuart and Barbara Davis (controlled eating), of Robert Alberti and Michael Emmons (assertive behavior), of Gary Martin and Joseph Pear, and of David Watson and Roland Tharp (self-control, in general); and (f) the creation of real-world Walden Two communities by Kathleen Kinkade (Twin Oaks) and Juan Robinson (Los Horcones). Rutherford describes the professional relations among these people; the popular, political, and legal reactions to and consequences of their work; and the cultural support (or lack thereof) for this work. As she notes, the book is not about Skinner, except the first chapter.

Beyond the Box will set the occasion for many discussions, for instance, in graduate seminars on behavior analysis and the history and systems of psychology. In the spirit of a seminar, I avoid an exhaustive "book report" and comment on four topics of particular relevance. The first is central to Rutherford's book--the importance of the original box; the second and third, topics inspired by her chapter on self-help--common sense and the countercultural quality of environmental control; and the fourth, a topic uniquely appropriate to a book on history--Rutherford's historiography. As suggested, this essay is not a traditional book review; rather, it is an extended reflection on the result of Rutherford's impressive scholarship. I begin with a discussion of the importance of the box to Skinner and behavior analysis.

The Box

The box in Beyond the Box is not the organism as "black box" but the Skinner box or operant chamber, Skinner's invention for studying the behavior of nonhuman animals, such as rats. Rutherford describes the operant chamber, explains its significance to Skinner, and discusses the early work of behavior analysts who adapted it to humans. On the chamber's significance, she remarks, "Ultimately, Skinner showed with this work that response rates could be determined reliably and precisely by the schedule of reinforcement used to generate them. He showed that animal behavior could be precisely controlled by its consequences" (p. 16). Although Beyond the Box is about applied behavior analysis, the title and theme of the book indicate that the operant chamber is critical to Rutherford's analysis. As Rutherford explains, "I outline how Skinner's experiments with rats and pigeons in small operant chambers inspired experiments with human subjects in an ever-expanding Skinner box until, finally, the box itself disappeared" (p. 7). To supplement her discussion of the operant chamber (pp. 15-16, 167), 1 briefly consider the importance of the chamber to Skinner and behavior analysis.

The operant chamber is not merely a convenient device for research. It is also an experimental apparatus intimately tied to some assumptions of behavior analysis. Two assumptions are that behavior is lawful and orderly and that among its causes are contingencies of reinforcement (p. 154; Delprato & Midgley, 1992). An operant chamber reveals something about these contingencies and about behavior itself by allowing an experimenter to manipulate behavior's antecedents and consequences. Consider two rats, each trained to lever press under a different schedule of reinforcement, which generates particular rates and patterns of responding. If the rats' lever pressing is then put on extinction, the subsequent rates and patterns might differ again. For example, both rats respond during extinction, but one rat emits responses at a high, steady rate, showing resistance to extinction, whereas the other rat emits responses at a low, unsteady rate, showing little resistance to extinction. The operant chamber, in this case, probes behavior, disclosing something about the rats' "current state[s] of behavior" and, thus, something about the rats' histories (Midgley & Morris, 2002; Sidman, 1960, pp. 120-121).

In addition, an operant chamber sets the occasion for behavior, informally speaking. As a setting, the operant chamber has at least three properties that are important to basic behavior analysis. It generates data on the behavior of individual organisms, it (along with the cumulative recorder) produces data on rate of response, and it embodies the three-term contingency (on the last, see p. 154). Consider first the importance of individual organisms. Here, Skinner (1956/1972) argued:
  When behavior shows order and consistency, we are much
  less likely to be concerned with physiological or
  mentalistic causes. A datum emerges which takes the
  place of theoretical fantasy. In the experimental
  analysis of behavior we address ourselves to a subject
  matter which is not only
  manifestly the behavior of an individual and
  hence accessible without the usual statistical
  aids but also "objective" and "actual" without
  recourse to deductive theorizing. (p. 120,
  emphasis added)

On the significance of rate of response, Skinner (1950) explained:
  It is no accident that rate of responding is successful
  as a datum, because it is particularly appropriate to
  the fundamental task of a science of behavior. If we are
  to predict behavior (and possibly to control it), we must
  deal with probability of response. The business of a
  science of behavior is to evaluate this probability and
  explore the conditions that determine it. ... Rate of
  responding is not a "measure" of probability but it is the
  only appropriate datum in a formulation in these terms.
  (p. 198)

And on the conceptualization of the three-term contingency, Skinner (1969) noted:
  An adequate formulation of the interaction between
  an organism and its environment must always specify
  three things: (1) the occasion upon which a response
  occurs, (2) the response itself, and (3) the reinforcing
  consequences. The interrelationships among them are the
  "contingencies of reinforcement". ... The interrelationships
  are much more complex than those between a stimulus and
  a response, and they are much more productive in both
  theoretical and experimental analyses. The behavior
  generated by a given set of contingencies can be accounted
  for without appealing to hypothetical inner states or
  processes. (pp. 7-8)

To integrate these points, the operant chamber was important to Skinner and is important to behavior analysis because it reveals something about operant behavior and its causes. Operant behavior is an appropriate subject matter because it is an activity of individual organisms, as are other biological activities (Skinner, 1975, p. 42). Behavior analysts study operant behavior as response rate--an indication of strength or probability--and they conceptualize the relations between operant behavior and its causes as a three-term contingency. Changes in response rates due to changes in reinforcement contingencies, as opposed to hypothetical inner agents, demonstrate the value of objective explanations. Having discussed the back story of the box, in brief (see Coleman, 1996; Skinner, 1956/1972), I consider two particular topics inspired by Rutherford's history.

Common Sense and Countercultural Control

In her chapter on self-help (i.e., self-control), Rutherford explicitly addresses the common sense of behavior analysis. She also addresses the importance to behavior analysis of environmental control, providing evidence that behavior analysis is countercultural and not exclusively common sense. I discuss these topics separately, beginning with common sense.

Common Sense

Rutherford suggests that the self-control literature was based on principles (and perhaps applications) that are "common sense" (p. 113)--even citing behavior analysts and friends of behavior analysis on this point (e.g., Stolz, Cohen; pp. 103, 114). However, she seems to be of two minds and ultimately offers a reconciliation. On the common-sense side, Rutherford asserts:
  In the 1960s and particularly in the 1970s, behavior
  analysts exported their techniques of measurement,
  observation, and functional analysis from the laboratory,
  clinic, and classroom to an eager public. They did so by
  parlaying their science into self-help and using their
  technical language to dress up common sense in scientific
  garb, simultaneously capitalizing on the
  appeal of common sense and the cultural authority
  of science to make the medicine go down. (p. 113)

On the uncommon-sense side, she notes:
  The techniques of behavior modification, although in
  many cases topographically similar to everyday practices,
  were scientifically derived and tested--based on findings
  from the experimental analysis of behavior, which itself
  was conducted in what sociologist Thomas Gieryn would call
  a "truth spot"--the scientist's laboratory. (p. 103,
  endnote number omitted)

And on a reconciliation, she argues:
  In suggesting that behavior modifiers in this
  period developed and used a new language of behavioral
  control that codified and objectified commonsense practices,
  I am not suggesting that this was, in fact, the sum total
  of their innovation. Behavior modifiers went beyond common
  sense by using science to evaluate, systematize, and codify
  existing practices, thus making them more efficient,
  effective, and scientific. (p. 114; see pp. 103, 115)

Assertions about common sense imply that the principles of behavior are simple. As with common sense, the truth might be more complicated than yes, they are simple or no, they are not. Consider a similar point: On the question of whether or not reinforcement as a principle is circular, Donald Baer remarked (at least once) that it is circular when it is defined that way; it is not circular when it is not defined that way. On simplicity, I paraphrase my paraphrase of Baer: Principles of behavior are simple when they are described that way; they are not simple when they are not described that way (Michael, 2004a, p. 2). Simple or not, behavior analysis wins. On the one hand, simple is good because simple is parsimonious (Etzel & LeBlanc, 1979; Hineline, 1995, p. 105). On the other hand, complexity might coincide with sophistication; sophisticated presentations of behavioral principles would reasonably be complex (e.g., Michael, 1995). Skinner himself added a wrinkle. In discussing Verbal Behavior (Skinner, 1957), he noted, "Operant reinforcement was perhaps simple, but the contingencies of reinforcement were quite complex" (Skinner, 1984, p. 153; on the simplicity of behavior analysis, see Skinner, 1974, pp. 253-256; on the simplicity--complexity issue, see Michael, 1980, and then Baer, 1981).

Countercultural Control

To add to this discussion of common sense and simplicity, I offer the observation that the principles of behavior, and behavior analysis more generally, are sometimes "counter-cultural" in their emphasis on environmental control (Hineline, 1995, P. 93). To me, Rutherford's chapter on self-control is interesting for what it says, not about self-control, but about control in general. In emphasizing a basic dichotomy in the self-control literature--willpower versus contingencies of reinforcement--Rutherford identifies the countercultural quality of behavior analysis (p. 113; see Knapp & Delprato, 1980). It "take[s] the environment seriously" (Neisser, 1985, p. 30; see Leahey, 1992, p. 468; Morris, 2003, p. 292), especially in its emphasis on control by contingencies of reinforcement. I illustrate this countercultural quality with two examples. The first is from the era that Rutherford reviews.

Wolf, Birnbrauer, Williams, and Lawler (1965) helped Laura, a young girl with an intellectual disability ("mental retardation"), among other problems, who vomited excessively. (They even published a cumulative record of vomits.) What is interesting about this study is the control exerted by the contingencies of reinforcement. Although the study lacks a single-subject design, the available data and other observations suggest that Laura's escape from the classroom or return to the dormitory room reinforced vomiting. People might reasonably assume that vomiting is an unconditioned or conditioned respondent response, but in this case it was probably an operant response, at least in part (Malott, Whaley, & Malott, 1993, pp. 99-100). As noted, the emphasis on environmental control, especially contingencies of reinforcement, is countercultural.

A more recent example that takes the environment and reinforcement contingencies seriously is Kennedy, Meyer, Knowles, and Shukla's (2000) study of the stereotypic responding of five young people with autism. I focus on one of them, James, as do the authors. With a multielement design, Kennedy and his colleagues found that James's stereotypy generally was higher under conditions of attention, demand, and no attention than it was under a control condition of recreation (Exp. 1). To provide more appropriate behaviors, they taught James "to raise his right hand, sign 'break,' and sign 'more" under the first three conditions (Kennedy et al., 2000, p. 564). If stereotypy were positively reinforced by attention from the experimenter, negatively reinforced by termination of demands, and evoked under conditions of minimal stimulation, James would now have a more appropriate way to ask for changes. With a multiple baseline design, Kennedy and his colleagues indeed found that James's stereotypy decreased and signing increased (Exp. 2). As they noted, "Based on current and previous findings, assessments of stereotypy for educational or psychological reasons need to address the possibility that these behaviors occur for multiple reasons, and that those reasons may be environmentally based" (Kennedy et al., 2000, p. 566, emphasis added). Again, the emphasis on environmental control is countercultural.

Behavior analysis focuses on the environment, which is common knowledge in psychology. In contrast, common sense psychology focuses on the person, not the environment (cf. Hineline, 1995). Common sense psychology says that vomiting is a reflexive response to an illness and that stereotypy is a symptom of a psychological disorder. Behavior analysis shows that sometimes these actions and others are purposive behaviors controlled by their consequences (Carr, 1993; Kazdin, 1978; Morgan, 2007, pp. 137-140; Skinner, 1974, pp. 61-63). This is a countercultural idea and makes behavior analysis uncommon sense in at least one sense.

I have a final observation concerning control. Rutherford makes a curious remark when she refers to radical behaviorism as "truly, ontologically, agency-less" (p. 113). The environment and reinforcement contingencies are the agents in behavior analysis (Hineline, 1995; see quote from Stuart & Davis, p. 108 in Rutherford). As Skinner (1974) observed, "What we have learned from the experimental analysis of behavior suggests that the environment performs the functions previously assigned to feelings and introspectively observed inner states of the organism" (p. 273). The clarification for her remark is a couple of pages earlier. In discussing failed attempts at self-control, she says, "One had to write willpower out of the equation; obliterate agency with determinism in the service of self-control" (p. 111). For Rutherford, then, agency refers to inner agents, as in willpower; determinism refers to environmental control. Because radical behaviorism rejects inner agents, it is agency-less.

Having discussed the back story of the box and considered common sense and the countercultural quality of behavior analysis, I step back and examine Rutherford's history in broad perspective.


The last topic of this review concerns three dichotomies scholars use to describe the writing of history: great person versus zeitgeist, internalism versus externalism, and presentism versus historicism. A consideration of these dichotomies will further characterize Rutherford's book and help readers compare it to related histories (e.g., Kazdin, 1978; O'Donohue, Henderson, Hayes, Fisher, & Hayes, 2001). The three dichotomies are interrelated, but I try to separate them without doing damage (on the three dichotomies, see Leahey, 2004, pp. 22-26; Morris, Todd, Midgley, Schneider, & Johnson, 1990).

The great person--zeitgeist dichotomy addresses the causes of history and is similar to the dichotomy of the internal versus external causation of behavior (e.g., Smith, 2001). Is history/psychological functioning due to qualities of ("great") people or is history/psycho-logical functioning due to cultural/environmental factors? Rutherford uses both explanations. For example, she organizes an early chapter around the contributions of three great people: Ferster, Lindsley, and Bijou. In speaking of Bijou's influence, she writes:
  Bijou represented a more truly transitional figure. He was convinced
  of the importance of experimental child research and devoted to it in
  his own career, but he nonetheless facilitated the work of Wolf,
  Risley, and others who exemplified the new breed of behavior
  modifier. (p. 61)

On the influence of Montrose Wolf, who would become first editor of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, Rutherford quotes from an interview with Jack Michael, "It took Mont Wolf coming to Seattle, working with Sid [Bijou] for a while, to actually institute all of the modification stuff ... So Mont at Seattle was simply starting behavior modification" (p. 61). On the zeitgeist side of the dichotomy ("extra-individual factors," p. 24), Rutherford recognizes the importance of the culture in supporting and suppressing research and innovation. For instance, in discussing Skinner's baby tender, she explains that it was consistent with the 1950's "better-living campaign" and "economic prosperity and techno-fervor" but "incongruent with this more nurturant approach" of Dr. Benjamin Spock, the "psychoanalytic influence on popular culture," and a "reversion to ultra-traditional sex-role stereotypes" (pp. 24-26).

The internalism--externalism dichotomy refers to the perspective of the historian. In this case, is Rutherford approaching behavior analysis from outside or inside the field? For example, Michael's (2004b) overview of publications important to behavior analysis is externalist from the 1500s to the 1930s because it identifies important publications before behavior analysis was behavior analysis and, in some cases, before behaviorism was an ism. From 1938 to 1990, in contrast, it is internalist because it focuses on mostly Skinner's works and major behavior-analytic journals. As an historian of psychology who is not a behavior analyst, Rutherford is most likely externalist in her history (p. 160). Still, she suggests that internal versus external is a false dichotomy (p. 11), noting that she "intentionally fluctuate[s] between accounts of internal disciplinary developments and their external reception and appropriation" (p. 13). Rutherford notes that other histories of applied behavior analysis "have almost without exception been written by participants in the field and provide descriptive, uncritical, and internalist overviews" (p. 160).

The presentist--historicist dichotomy refers to "the meaning of past events" (Morris et al., 1990, p. 143). Is meaning sought in the present or the past? Rutherford's book is largely historicist. In discussing prison reform, for example, she writes:
  Thus, in retrospect, those behavior modifiers who did venture beyond
  the box to the prison cellblock experienced only a brief window of
  opportunity. The tide of public sentiment that advanced their work in
  the late 1960s just as quickly curtailed it in the mid-1970s. After
  the thousands of dollars spent trying to treat inmates and reform
  prisons, it seemed retribution had trumped rehabilitation. Although
  some argued that rehabilitation as a social experiment had failed,
  behavior modifiers argued that they had not been given sufficient
  opportunity, under adequate conditions, to prove the worth of their
  techniques. Behavior modifiers experienced, sometimes acutely, the
  powerful influence of their social context. As society's values
  shifted, attitudes towards their work changed. Instead of providing a
  solution, behavior modification became part of the problem. (p. 100)

Given that behavior-analytic reform was a failed experiment, presentism might simply ignore it as part of the history of behavior analysis, explain it away, or regard it as a glitch in the upward trajectory of behavior analysis. The failure is not meaningfully related to the present. In Leahey's (2004) words:
  A Whig [presentist] account of history sees history as a
  series of progressive steps leading up to our current state of
  enlightenment. A Whig history of science assumes that present-day
  science is essentially correct, or at least superior to that of the
  past, and tells the story of science in terms of how brilliant
  scientists discovered the truth known to us today. Error is condemned
  in a Whig account as an aberration of reason, and scientists whose
  ideas do not conform to present wisdom are either ignored or
  dismissed as fools. (pp. 22-23)

Rutherford seems to avoid such presentist arguments.

Of the three dichotomies and six extremes, presentism might be the hardest to understand. Furthermore, it is not necessarily an historiographic sin (Fredericks, 2006, p. 43). Consider, for example, Kantor's (1963, 1969) history of psychology. Historians might regard it as presentist because Kantor assessed the assumptions of past scholars on the basis of their degree of naturalism and supernaturalism (e.g., 1963, P. 161). This is seeking meaning in the present, using current criteria, although his history was also historicist. Kantor was shamelessly biased in favor of naturalism and regarded psychology's immersion in the supernaturalism of Descartes, Locke, and Kant, among others, as detrimental. Some behavioral psychologists, however, value Kantor's history for its naturalistic bias, noting that some biases are good (Smith, 2001, p. 307; on Kantor's history, see Delprato, 1990; Fredericks, 2006; Mountjoy & Smith, 1971).

Overall, Rutherford's history is a combination of great person, zeitgeist, internalism, externalism, and historicism. Only presentism is missing--maybe. The title of her book indicates an organizing theme. Although the operant chamber precedes the birth of applied behavior analysis and therefore is well placed to serve as a causal factor, if the chamber were today unfamiliar and of only historic interest, I doubt that Rutherford would have used it as an organizing theme. She has sought meaning of the past in the present (see Woodward, 1996, on themes in Skinner's autobiographical publications). Although Rutherford convincingly makes the case for the effect of the operant chamber on early applied behavior analysis, she notes, "The gradual physical expansion, and finally complete deconstruction, of the box itself from a small chamber, to a room, to a building, to a community, to a rhetoric for self-improvement, also provides a convenient trope for structuring my account" (p. 18). As mentioned, though, presentism is not necessarily a sin. As Leahey (2004) pointed out, even his own history of psychology is presentist:
  A large-scale, historical survey ot the sort I am writing must be, to
  some degree, presentist--that is, concerned with how psychology got
  to be the way it is. This is not because I think psychology today is
  for the best, as a Whig historian would, but because I wish to use
  history to understand psychology's current condition. As we shall
  find, psychology could have taken other paths than it did, but it is
  beyond the scope of this book to explore what might have been. (p. 23)

As an aside, an interesting bit of behavior-analytic history concerns Douglas Biklen. In her chapter on token economies and psychiatric institutions, Rutherford notes:
  In one of the only reports, if not the only report, of patient
  reaction to a token economy on a state hospital psychiatric ward,
  Douglas Biklen, then a doctoral student at the University of
  Michigan, outlined both his reactions and the reactions of patients
  to the enthusiastic attempts of two psychologists and their students
  to implement a token economy. (p. 76)

The reactions were not positive, and perhaps they should not have been. Regardless, readers might appreciate knowing that this is the Douglas Biklen of facilitated communication fame or infamy (e.g., Biklen & Cardinal, 1997; see Gorman, 1998). Facilitated communication is a technique that supposedly allows people with autism, for example, to communicate via keyboards and human assistants. Facilitated communication is controversial, to say the least, because many professionals argue that it does not do what it is said to do (e.g., Green, 1994; Montee, Miltenberger, & Wittrock, 1995). Rutherford, however, does not mention facilitated communication or the controversy. Incidentally, Biklen received his doctoral degree from Syracuse University, where he is now dean of the school of education, not the University of Michigan (Biklen, n.d., 1974, 1976; Gorman, 1998; Syracuse University School of Education, n.d.).


The Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis was founded over 40 years ago. In recent years, behavior analysis has seen the deaths of some of its pioneers, among them Donald Baer (1931-2002), Todd Risley (1937-2007), and Montrose Wolf (1935-2004), who coauthored the seminal article "Some Current Dimensions of Applied Behavior Analysis" (Baer, Wolf, & Risley, 1968). Other pioneers include Sidney Bijou (19082009), Kathleen Kinkade (1930-2008), and Ogden Lindsley (1922-2004). Rutherford provides a valuable service in adding to the scholarly literature on the history of applied behavior analysis and, thus, behavior analysis more generally. Her history can educate and inform new generations of behavior analysts, professionals who apply behavior analysis, and the public that seeks behavior-analytic interventions, to help them appreciate the contributions of these pioneers and others and to see the roots of contemporary applied behavior analysis.


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I thank Todd McKerchar, Edward K. Morris, Kenda Morrison, Nathaniel G. Smith, and James T. Todd for their helpful recommendations and Morris and Morrison for their wise comments on earlier versions of this article. They, of course, are not responsible for any errors in fact or logic.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Bryan D. Midgley, Department of Behavioral Sciences, McPherson College, McPherson, KS 67460. E-mail:

(1.) Unless noted otherwise, page citations throughout this review are to Rutherford (2009).

(2.) Rutherford also specializes in women in psychology, although this is not explicitly considered in the book under review.

Bryan D. Midgley

McPherson College
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Author:Midgley, Bryan, D.
Publication:The Psychological Record
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2012
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