Skinner’s Use of Metaphor in Explaining the Behaviorism of Walden Two



            B. F. Skinner revolutionized the field of psychology through his numerous writings on behaviorism.  However, he began his collegiate life as an English major, and his education in literary techniques and devices clearly shows through in the manipulation of metaphor in his famous novel Walden Two.  Although Skinner rarely diverges from the incessant description of behavioral engineering through his mouthpiece in the novel, Frazier, he occasionally digresses from the theory and application of scientific experimentation to the literary elements that are essential to any novel.  One of these elements, the metaphor of the sheep that appears at the beginning and end of the book, clearly embodies three principles of Skinner’s behaviorist rationale:  the superiority of positive reinforcement over negative reinforcement, the necessity for humans to accept their roles, and the function of the Walden Code to the members of Walden Two.

            The novel begins in the disillusioned atmosphere of post-World War Two America.  Burris, a psychology professor and the main character of the novel, views his academic life with indifference, sharing this attitude toward teaching with his philosophy professor colleague, Castle.  A former pupil of Burris, Rodge, and a fellow soldier, Steve, return from the war, and dissatisfied with what they are expected to do with their lives, approach Burris with a proposition.  A former classmate of Burris’, Frazier, has started a utopian community by the name of Walden Two, and the two friends invite Burris and Castle to accompany them on a visit.

            When they arrive, the enthusiastic, egotistical Frazier leads them through the behaviorally engineered life of Walden Two.  Everything is planned:  from birth negative emotions are eradicatied through positive reinforcement; the nuclear family is dissolved in favor of communal affection, labor credits and four-hour work days ensure economic equality and satisfaction; the entirety of life has been scientifically manipulated to guarantee happiness.  The novel, an exposition of behaviorist thought, is almost a Socratic dialogue with Frazier acting as the famed questioning philosopher and Castle as the ignorant pupil, through which the superiority of behavioral engineering is eventually proven.  Although Castle leaves disenchanted with what he considers a fascist ideology, Burris eventually succumbs to the appeal of Walden Two and participates in Frazier’s experiment of humanity. 

            Although these crucial ideas might overshadow the literary merits of Walden Two, Skinner the English major understood the importance of every minor detail and digression from the main narrative.  The sheep, which serve no purpose to the plot of the story, illustrate Skinner’s behaviorist ideas through metaphor.  The sheep benefit the community in a superficial sense by acting as a more efficient lawnmower, requiring only the work of moving a portable fence.  Although once electrocuted, the fence is now just string, and the only other restraint is a sheepdog, the Bishop, which guards the sheep watchfully.  This idea works on a deeper level to help Skinner relate his scientific ideas to literary ones.

            As Frazier expounds upon the sheep, he explains the “tradition among [Walden Two’s] sheep never to approach the string” because they learn that this behavior “from their elders, whose judgment they never question” (16).  Skinner later indirectly repeats this tactic of weeding out unwanted characteristics to the raising of Walden Two children by getting rid of “the destructive and wasteful emotions” because “they’re no longer needed” (93).  Compared to the sheep, the children learn from the start through behavioral engineering and example from elders to live successfully in their environment.  In both environments, Skinner also shows how using the “primitive principle of control” that is punishment or negative reinforcement is ineffective at best (282).  Skinner shows how the “threat of pain” to the sheep in the guise of an electrocuted fence was unnecessary, since the sheep controlled their behavior through example (282).  Walden Two operates on the same principle, by controlling the children’s behavior through engineering and not through punishment and negative reinforcement, the community raises adults that are not resentful or reliant upon restrictive measures to keep the population in order.

            One of the most important aspects about Walden Two is the social and economic equality of its members.  Frazier mentions how “it’s easy for [Walden Two’s] children to accept their limitations” and personal rivalry is discouraged (117).  Although Walden Two’s members are equal in all social respects, biologically they understand that there are shortcomings in each of them, which they have accepted according to their behavioral training.  The fact that no member “will set his heart on a course of action so firmly that he’ll be unhappy if it isn’t open to him” shows how ambition and determination aren’t treasured as highly as compromise for the betterment of the social group.  This kind of thinking leads to the idea that each member must cooperate with each other in order for the community to work, which circles back to the metaphor, in particular to something Frazier says about the relationship between the sheepdog and the people.  Frazier wants “the society of man and man” to be comparable to the “cooperation of man and dog” (284).  The inclination of the dog to do what is its nature—as compared with the Walden Two member who accepts his biological limits and through behavior engineering works with it for the goal of the community—produces a “very satisfying sort of symbiosis” (284). 

            In the political world of Walden Two, democracy, which is frequently interchangeable with equality, does not exist.  The rules of the community are changed only through a vote by the Planners and Managers, who are specialized leaders of the community’s economic resources.  Frazier supports this non-democratic rule of government with the statement that “people are in no better position to change the constitution than to decide upon the current practices” (254).  Although it seems dictatorial, the members of Walden Two accept this way of life, in the same way the sheep accept the string that encloses them and that is not of their own free will.  The Code is used “to inspire group loyalty and strengthen the observance of the Code” without threat of force, much like the harmless string keeps the sheep from leaving their piece of pasture (185).  The ever-changing boundary string of the pasture also reflects on the experimental nature of the Code.  Frazier says how it is encouraged “to view every habit and custom with an eye to possible improvement.  A constant experimental attitude toward everything” (25).  This applies to the Code as well, which changes whenever the members feel that it is necessary.

            Even though Skinner made a name for himself through his scientific endeavors, his novel Walden Two displays his literary training and knowledge.  By using the metaphor of the sheep to further explain the lives of Walden Two members in an enriching and scholarly way, Skinner manages to weave science and art together.  His ability to enforce the ideas of positive reinforcement, acceptance of roles, and the politics of the Walden Code through the simplicity of a flock of sheep shows his literary merit.  Skinner proves that he is not only a scientist, but a writer as well.