Exploring Skinner's Basement
B.F. Skinner's inner sanctum reveals the creativity of behaviorism's best mind.
By Julie S. Vargas Ph.D. and Paul Chance published February 1, 2003 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016
B. F. Skinner was one of the tallest figures in 20th-century scientific psychology, casting a long and enduring shadow. His experimental research and theoretical work provided new views of language, thinking, problem solving and creativity. His ideas have been put to practical use in business, medicine and special education.
People who met my father were struck by both his humility and his ingenuity. You can get a feeling for the latter by visiting a place where he spent a good deal of his time: the basement study in his Cambridge, Massachusetts, home. Let me give you a brief tour....
As we descend the stairs, you will notice a pair of metal file cabinets and, on the wall next to them, a certificate and a photograph. The certificate is the National Medal of Science, and the photograph shows Fred, as he liked to be called, receiving it from President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1969. Skinner won many awards, but this is the only one he displayed, albeit in the basement. The file cabinets hold photographs and correspondence from his final years. If you wrote to him in the 1980s, chances are your letter is there, along with a copy of his reply. He personally answered the hundreds of letters he received each month.
0ff to the left you can see an opening that leads to his workshop. From the time he was a boy, Skinner enjoyed building things, especially contraptions for solving problems. For instance, he could not turn off the basement light from the bottom of the stairs. Rather than call an electrician to install a second switch, my father glued an eyelet to the upstairs switch and ran fishing line so that he could control it from the bottom of the stairs. It looks a bit strange, but it works beautifully.
The door directly in front of you opens into his office; let's go inside....
At first glance the office resembles nothing so much as a college dormitory room. It is large and not particularly neat. But look around and you see the breadth of his interests. An old reel-to-reel tape recorder and dozens of tapes of classical music keep company with a modern stereo system and a collection of CDs. You see a small statue based on Edgar Degas' ballet dancers, along with other statuettes and a huge poster of cave art from Lascaux, France. Scattered on the walls and above his desk you find photos of his family and closest friends. In one window sits a model ship Skinner built when just out of college. But what is most striking about the room is how he adapted it to make himself more productive.
Next to the door is an old but sturdy dining room table that served as a writing desk for many years; most of his writing from the 1960s was done at that desk. He built a maze of shelves and cubbyholes at the back of his writing area so that everything he might need was within reach. You can see reference books such as a dictionary and Skeats' Concise Dictionary of Etymology(he loved to look up the derivations of words). The card file to the left of where my father sat has definitions and etymologies of frequently used words, such as pleasureand play. The books he wrote sit on the top shelf above boxes and cardboard drawers that hold pencils, paper clips, tape and other supplies.
My father believed that we all have good ideas, but we sometimes fail to capture them when they occur. He always carried a small spiral notebook so he could write down ideas as they came to him. He filed his notes by topic along with articles and other things of interest in the open top file cabinet to what was his right; you can see the wealth and diversity of his interests.
He wrote his first outlines in longhand on large blank sheets of paper. That way, he could record ideas in different positions and see them all at once. When he had a first draft, he would read it into the Dictaphone on the right so that his secretary at Harvard could type it. He edited his work heavily. Sometimes he would go through a dozen drafts, tossing the previous versions beneath his desk. A box of edited manuscripts is still there.
Here's another way in which my father tried to improve his productivity: He wired his desk light so that turning it on also turned on a clock —that way, he had a record of how much time he spent writing. He wrote early in the morning when the house was quiet. When I was a child and came down here to talk to him about something, he would click off the desk light, spin around on his swivel chair and with a big smile, say, "Hello. What can I do for you?" When I left, he would turn on the light, starting the clock again, and go back to work. Each week, he plotted his daily hours on a graph. When he found himself clock-watching, he taped a piece of cardboard over the clock face so that he wouldn't be distracted.
The light-clock connection has been secured with a bit of hot glue. As you look around the room, you will see that there are electrical wires and extension cords going every which way, and every connection is wrapped with electrician's tape or has been hot-glued. It's a fire inspector's nightmare, but it shows how he was constantly fixing things to make his life easier and more productive.
This large stuffed chair is where my father did most of his reading. He had glaucoma that destroyed much of his vision, but he dealt with it as he did any other problem: He bought a large magnifying lens with a strong light. This helped, but it jiggled despite the arm that held it in place. To correct this problem, he attached the lens, by means of a complex array of hooks, pulleys and fishing line, to a counterweight. After doing that, he could put the lens wherever he wanted, and it would stay in place.
That big yellow box next to the television, by the way, is a Japanese sleeping capsule, a gift from its manufacturer. It looks like a suspended animation chamber from a sci-fi film, but it's quite cozy. There's a sound system in it and a small tape recorder for capturing ideas. In his later years, my father slept here —that way, when he awakened in the night, he could easily go to his desk and work without disturbing my mother.
My father's basement is a testament to the value of behavior science. By modifying his environment he modified his own behavior so he would be happier, healthier and more productive. I hope this brief tour will help you do the same.
Julie S. Vargas, Ph.D., one of Skinner's two daughters, is a professor of behavioral science at West Virginia University. Paul Chance, Ph.D., is the book-review editor for Psychology Today.