Skilluminati Research

BF Skinner’s Daughter is Alive and Well

Posted Jul 17, 2007 10 comments

BF Skinner Freedom Time magazine

When I read that B.F. Skinner's daughter committed suicide, it sounded logical. I found numerous accounts of how B.F. Skinner raised his daughter in a box, using "operant conditioning" -- and she grew up with severe psychological disturbances, ultimately killing herself.

However, this morning I went to get some documentation about the fate of Skinner's daughter, and I found out I have decieved a number of people in the past few years. I apologize to everyone who heard me repeat this anaecdote -- it's a complete fake.

The Background

BF SkinnerB.F. Skinner is relevant to our work here at Skilluminati Research, so it'll be worth establishing some context. Skinner was a behavioralist, which puts him right in the center of our main line of inquiry into systems of social control. Although I take issue with a great many of Skinner's theories and conclusions, I don't think he was a stupid man. Much like Timothy Leary or Buckminster Fuller, most of what people "know" about B.F. Skinner is mere soundbites. His actual work is fascinating and largely distorted, or just plain unknown. I would urge anyone anxious to write off B.F. Skinner as a monster or fascist to actually read his work and wrestle with the ideas and the data he presents.

If you're totally unfamiliar, start here.

The Bullshit

Lauren Slater Opening Skinners BoxHaving never spoken to her, I have no way of knowing the motivations of Lauren Slater, author of Opening Skinner's Box. It's safe to assume she is, at the very least, a lazy and sloppy researcher. Perhaps it's important to note that she herself claims to write "creative non-fiction" (apparently a euphemism for "lying"), but it's not my intent to do an armchair analysis of the woman. Let's just focus on what she wrote:

[B.F. Skinner] used his infant daughter, Deborah, to prove his theories by putting her for a few hours a day in a laboratory box in which all her needs were controlled and shaped. He kept her caged for two full years, placing within her cramped square space bells and food trays and all manners of mean punishments and bright rewards, and he tracked her progress on a grid. And then, when she was thirty-one and frankly psychotic, she sued him for abuse in a genuine court of law, lost the case, and shot herself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. Boom-boom went the gun.

As it turns out, this passage was more "creative" than "non-fiction."

The Reality

Let's turn the microphone over to Deborah Skinner Buzan, who is still alive today, married in London. She wrote an extended letter to the UK paper The Guardian which was published on March 12, 2004:

Slater's sensationalist book rehashes some of the old stuff, but offers some rumours that are entirely new to me. For my first two years, she reports, my father kept me in a cramped square cage that was equipped with bells and food trays, and arranged for experiments that delivered rewards and punishments. Then there's the story that after my father "let me out", I became psychotic. Well, I didn't. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana.

Laura Slater has said little in her own defense, which is probably understandable. What could she possibly say?

The Cognitive Dissonance

At this point, you might find yourself in the same position I was: confused. I'd seen photographic proof that Skinner had put his daughter into a conditioning "box" -- but this is worth examining in some detail, because it provides a great illustration of cognitive bias. By observing how my brain malfunctioned, hopefully you can learn something about yours.

Let's be specific and clear: had I seen "photographic proof"? Negative. What I'd seen was a photograph, depicting B.F. Skinner and a woman looking down at a child, who was placed inside what appeared to be a large white box with an open door. It's important to remember that a photograph is just a photograph -- don't trust the caption unless you can verify the information. It's reasonable to assume that, having both "BF Skinner" and a child in a box sharing the same frame, the photograph depicts a "Skinner box" -- the experimental construct that Skinner used to train animals using "operant conditioning." However, this is not the case.

BF Skinner Lab workThe box in the photo is called a Baby Tender -- and it's another invention of Skinner's, "an easily-cleaned, temperature and humidity-controlled box Skinner designed to assist in the raising of babies." This is a strange place to arrive at -- and I would certainly understand if the reader feels I'm making a dishonest argument. After all, the child in the photo was in fact his daughter, and the box the child sits inside was in fact built by him -- so, doesn't that mean it's a photo of B.F. Skinner's daughter in a Skinner Box?

I still say no. A "Skinner Box," after all, is not a term defined as "any box which was built by B.F. Skinner." It was a specific term used to describe the apparatus he used to test and train animals. Skinner himself described the Baby Tender, and as you can see for yourself, the comfort of the infant, not behavioral conditioning, was the aim of the device:

When we decided to have another child, my wife and I felt that it was time to apply a little labor-saving invention and design to the problems of the nursery. We began by going over the disheartening schedule of the young mother, step by step. We asked only one question: Is this practice important for the physical and psychological health of the baby? When it was not, we marked it for elimination. Then the "gadgeteering" began.

The result was an inexpensive apparatus in which our baby daughter has now been living for eleven months. Her remarkable good health and happiness and my wife’s welcome leisure have exceeded our most optimistic predictions, and we are convinced that a new deal for both mother and baby is at hand.

Why not, we thought, dispense with clothing altogether — except for the diaper, which serves another purpose — and warm the space in which the baby lives? This should be a simple technical problem in the modern home. Our solution is a closed compartment about as spacious as a standard crib . The walls are well insulated, and one side, which can be raised like a window, is a large pane of safety glass. The heating is electrical, and special precautions have been taken to insure accurate control.

After a little experimentation we found that our baby, when first home from the hospital, was completely comfortable and relaxed without benefit of clothing at about 86°F. As she grew older, it was possible to lower the temperature by easy stages. Now, at eleven months, we are operating at about 78°F, with a relative humidity of 50 per cent.

Deborah explains her own experience of "The Box":

I was very happy, too, though I must report at this stage that I remember nothing of those first two and a half years. I am told that I never once objected to being put back inside. I had a clear view through the glass front and, instead of being semi-swaddled and covered with blankets, I luxuriated semi-naked in warm, humidified air. The air was filtered but not germ-free, and when the glass front was lowered into place, the noise from me and from my parents and sister was dampened, not silenced.

The effect on me? Who knows? I was a remarkably healthy child, and after the first few months of life only cried when injured or inoculated. I didn't have a cold until I was six. I've enjoyed good health since then, too, though that may be my genes. Frankly, I'm surprised the contraption never took off. A few aircribs were built during the late 50s and 60s, and somebody also produced plans for DIY versions, but the traditional cot was always going to be a smaller and cheaper option. My sister used one for her two daughters, as did hundreds of other couples, mostly with some connection to psychology.

What a sick, inhuman monster, huh? What kind of heartless beast spends that much time on making his own child comfortable and healthy?

B.F. Skinner, in a hilarious twist of cosmic irony, is an irreducibly complex human organism. It's easy -- and cheap -- to repeat rumors and lies about his personal life in an effort to discredit the man's work. Believe me, if you want to discredit B.F. Skinner, there is an over-abundance of material for you in his actual published work. More importantly, you will be a smarter person for having read Walden Two. I personally think the book is a sick nightmare, but it's also very persuasive and intelligently argued stuff -- if you haven't thought about the questions B.F. Skinner raises, you're frankly in no position to judge him in the first place.


Filed in: Social Control

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  • 1. Spiral Cycle on Jul 17, 2007 at 9:24 PM permalink


  • 2. Abstract Thinker on Jul 18, 2007 at 3:12 AM permalink

    Check out snopes for a good photo of the baby tender. ...There is a co called Babee Tenda that now produces cage like cribs for babies. (I owned the feeding chair ($350+) and it was a great investment.) I wonder if his Baby Tender was the idea behind this co’s products. BTW Did you happen to get your info from Snopes? The articles are remarkably the same.

  • 3. Thirtyseven on Jul 18, 2007 at 3:41 AM permalink

    No, I cribbed it from the same site snopes did—the same folks I linked to for the introduction to Skinner.

    It’s an interesting site, worth exploring.

  • 4. Woodywoodman on Jul 18, 2007 at 10:06 AM permalink

    Sweet work Three-sev. I have to admit I have ‘blamed’ Skinner for the lack of critical thinking in modern North-American education. But I suppose that has more to do with a broad and perhaps inappropiate application of his research to education theory. Thanks for your bunk-desolving work.

  • 5. J. Vargas on Jul 23, 2007 at 11:30 AM permalink

    For accurate information you might want to link to the B. F. Skinner Foundation,

  • 6. Stuart R Harder on Jul 23, 2007 at 8:50 PM permalink

    I am a second-generation behavior analyst and had the good fortune of training with and learning from a number of superb behavioral educators who were either students of B.F. Skinner or were influenced by him.  What the community of behavior analysts, beginning with Dr. Skinner, insists on is that we not kid ourselves about what can be shown (also insert ‘known’) with respect to human behavior. 

    Statements made by behavior analysts are done in the context of time-linked observations that relate the behavior of the individual (not the group) to the events that precede and follow those behavioral events.  These observations inform both observer and performer of the benefits that attach to the behaviors of interest and the costs associated with obtaining these benefits.  Knowing the functional significance of the behavior-environment relationship allows us to help the learner obtain desired outcomes in different ways that may not be as costly.

    In education, Dr. Skinner did not generally talk about what we ought to teach children, but rather spoke about how to teach in ways that made learning more efficient and permanent.  The modern day extensions of Dr. Skinner’s work in education produces educational gains in ‘normal’ and disenfranchised learners that few others in the educational world can equal.  One discouraged 10-year old who hated to read, wrote on the top of a paper for his mother, “I LOVE TO READ”, after passing four consecutive reading lessons in which he read 300 words per minute with one or two errors.  The real tragedy in today’s educational environment is that glitz and glitter fads get foisted off on our precious children with little or no empirical evidence of effectiveness.  Our brightest kids survive the abuse; all other die on the vine.

    Say what you will about B.F. Skinner, but if you want to argue, put or shut up.  Show me your graphs that show learners earning.

  • 7. Thirtyseven on Jul 23, 2007 at 8:54 PM permalink

    “Show me your graphs that show learners earning”—is a reference to what?  I didn’t get that part at all.

  • 8. Regina F. on Jul 23, 2007 at 10:36 PM permalink

    Thanks for the great post, for addressing this urban legend, and for the suggestion to go to Skinner’s primary sources, rather than rely on the possibly faulty interpretations of biographers and critics. The BF Skinner Foundation website in previous comment has some of the primary sources available for download.

    (I remember back in high school, before I knew anything about Skinner, or behaviorism for that matter, of the Skinner box/Reich’s orgone box/and the baby in the box being conflated into some kind of insane story with the end being the daughter with the suicide. The real story is more interesting although less sensational.)

    Here’s some articles on the “Baby Tender” that might be of interest to put this in perspective for the times, and have additional links, including to the original article from the Ladies Home Journal:

    Box-reared babies, mechanical maids, and robot nurses:
    B. F. Skinner and better living in 1950s America*
    Alexandra Rutherford

    Box-Bred Babies 1963,9171,829926,00.html

    and from another blog, which has a couple of good pictures:
    The Aircrib: B.F. Skinner’s Baby-In-A-Box

  • 9. Stuart Harder on Jul 23, 2007 at 11:38 PM permalink

    Sorry about the misspell.  It should have read, “Show me your graphs that show learners learning.” (I hate it when I miss stuff like that.)

  • 10. John Eshleman on Jul 24, 2007 at 1:21 PM permalink

    Hey Skilluminati Research,

    That post above by “J. Vargas on Jul 23, 2007 at 8:30 AM” is FROM B.F. Skinner’s daughter, Julie S. Vargas.  Both Julie, and her sister Debbie, are indeed ‘alive and well.’ Julie runs the foundation named after her father.

    So, how about that, eh?  You have a posting from Skinner’s daughter right on your blog page.


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