Behaviorism at Walden Two : Reading Odell and Skinner

In “How to Do Nothing”, Jenny Odell brings up Walden Two by B.F Skinner when she discusses the ideas of communes and the aspect of people escaping from society. Odell was drawn to Walden Two because when she brought up the idea of communes and how over time people have used them as an escape from reality. The characters in Walden Two escape to the Walden Two utopian commune, which is led by the enthusiastic T.E Frazier, to observe and learn about what life in a utopian society could be like. Throughout the visitors’ three days there, Frazier shows the visitors around and explains to them his planning of the utopian commune and how everyday life goes on there. Frazier seeks to inform the visitors of what it is like to live and work at Walden Two, and how he plans for the future of the commune. Everything there is very communal as people live, work, and do most things together to get what needs to be done. Nobody is paid wages and work hours are short. Walden Two is run on behaviorism and that these people are taught to see that the life here is the best possible, and most productive. This inherently makes the members happy through these unorthodox means. Frazier and the community are always looking for ways to expand the productiveness and overall happiness of the commune. The visitors are Professor Burris, a psychology professor, Rogers and Jamnick accompanied by their wives, two soldiers recently back from WWII, and Castle, Burris’ colleague who is a philosopher. The author of Walden Two uses the visit of the Walden Two commune to have the characters search for practices that worked, and find something that could satisfy their human well-being whether it comes to health, wisdom, or wealth in the name of behavioral science and experimentation.

Something I feel like Odell glossed over or didn’t highlight enough in regard to Walden Two was Skinner himself as a scientist and his vision. Odell does bring up the Skinner-box which he created that studied animal behavior and intelligence that seeks responses to certain stimuli. To me, the skinner-box was not the best example of Skinner’s work or vision that could have been discussed. Skinner was not known as a fictional writer at all, Walden Two is an exception but still, it is not a typical fictional story but rather a fictional documentary to an extent. Skinner was known as one of the most influential and prominent psychologists of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer of behavior analysis and the experimentation of human behavior. With all the work and publications he did, Skinner sought to naturalize people’s freedom and mind. Experimentation is the key to building one’s psyche and mental freedoms. He believes individuality is a key to building one’s purpose as well as fulfilling a community’s goal. Skinner did believe that behavior is already controlled, but another main goal of his was to eradicate the dehumanized or “Fascist” control of humanity. But critics of Walden Two as well as Odell see the book as something that is not that perfect vision of individuality. Odell is a critic, and to her Frazier is a character that uses the behavioral science techniques Skinner knows so much of, to gain control over his people at the commune. The members are manipulated to become almost robotic to the sense that they think they are happy as well as free, but overall they are being controlled by autocratic Frazier to please his view of a utopian society. Odell doesn’t see the naturalism that some would expect in a utopian setting but rather she sees Walden Two as a dystopian society. Skinner’s own praise of individuality is somewhat lost in Walden Two because it seems that the members of the commune are always working and doing things with others, rather than individually. Everyone is working together towards a common goal of productiveness and happiness but the sense of individuality is not one that Frazier sees as perfect.

Something that I think I would like to see Odell discuss more in the book regarding Walden Two if she had another page or two is the aspect of what the characters in the book thought of the commune and how much they liked/or disliked it. If she were to highlight this more, it could bring more attention to how people actually react to certain communes and societies. She points out how some prior members all seem happy but that is just an observation. Skinner used behavioral science to write Walden Two and the reactions of the main characters to Frazier’s plan and society is important. For example, Burris, the main character who is visiting Walden Two, finds Walden Two as an almost sketchy place but he is interested in many of the ideas Frazier puts forward and it’s experimentality. He notices the success that is taking place and members actually seem content in this life, eventually he finds himself coming back to live there at the end of the book. On the other hand, Castle, from the very start is a critic of the commune. He thinks Frazier has way too much dominance and hates the idea that Frazier sees everyone as a predictable member of society. He thinks the members are like robots, which Odell also agrees with, and wants nothing to do with Walden Two. Castle doesn’t see Walden Two working at all, even in the future. Although Odell is openly critical of Walden Two as a place, if she went more into how characters such as Castle and Barbara, Roger’s wife, are openly against the commune, her point could become even stronger. There is reasoning behind why each character is attracted to Walden Two or not. Burris is torn because as a psychologist he sees why it may be too much and one may not have the cognitive freedom they need, but he studies human behavior and to him, Walden Two is a place that seeks to experiment and grow and that pulls him in. For Rogers and Jamnick, they are soldiers and just defeated the Nazis. To them, they see the commune as a complete opposite as to Nazi Germany. They are intrigued by the individuality and true community that they perceive and give into the practice. Another reason why they were so intrigued is because they were very lost in life since they just got back from war, and they saw Walden Two as a new beginning to grow their own perfect life. But for Castle, he is a philosopher, so of course he is going to be the biggest skeptic of a place that calls itself utopian. He is appalled by the control Frazier seems to have over Walden Two and wants nothing to do with the chance of his mind being controlled by another person and becoming a “robot” that he perceives other people becoming. All of this goes to show that it just depends on each person and their individual mindset, strengths, and weaknesses. If one is in a weaker mindset, they might be more prone to being pulled in by a commune or say a cult, but if one is strong-minded and curious, they will be more able to control their own decisions. For Odell, she can use this point to tie into her belief that the Attention Economy will have stronger effects on certain people, meanwhile others will avoid the urges and addictions.

Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free. — Frazier

I perceived that Odell brought up Walden Two by B.F Skinner, to show the more controlling, but optimistic sides of communes. Some communes can be very disorganized and chaotic in a way when there is no structure, but Walden Two is a commune that has a clear organizational structure that some may see as too autocratic or powerful, but in general, members seem more content and calm. But when it comes to Frazier, the head of the Walden Two, Odell and even Castle criticize Frazier for being almost a fascist. Odell quotes when Frazier says, “Their behavior is determined, yet they’re free.”, when he talks of the members of the commune. That is something that is definitely concerning because it is like the members of the commune are free, but they are blindly being pressured into doing tasks just for Frazier’s benefit. Odell also talks much about “The Code” that Walden Two has which members are not allowed to discuss, bringing up the idea that history is not important in Walden Two. The Code is a guide to self-control to enable members of the commune to do the most productive and efficient work they can for the betterment of the community. Members individually enforce The Code in their lives and also have ways to understand it better with the help of counselors. Odell brings this up because it ties in with her idea of the show Westworld and that memories are almost completely wiped out and if people start to remember or ponder on those things more, they are more likely to go back and give up, such as giving up on Walden Two. That idea is used to encourage an even stronger escape from reality in which people seek, but the thought of it can be scary to some, such as Castle in Walden Two. To Odell, Walden Two is nothing more than a failure at behavioral freedom and individuality, something that many communes find themselves falling apart due to, or the creation of cults and dictatorships that result in the strip of freedom and independence.

All in all, the main thing I think Odell would benefit with adding on to her book would be the deeper meanings of behavioral and social sciences that Skinner uses and knows so much about. Frazier is a character that obviously many see as too controlling over the commune with his uses of behaviorism. To me it is interesting to take both sides of the argument of whether individuality is more important, or if community is. Odell would be more on the side of individuality while Frazier would be on the side of community and Skinner would be in between. The Attention Economy in “How to Do Nothing” is something that also uses behaviorism in ways to attract people to take up their time for the benefit of bug companies and such. Connecting the scientific ideas of Skinner and Walden Two with the Attention Economy would be very interesting and Odell could do more on that in her book.

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