York prof’s new book on B.F. Skinner goes ‘beyond the box’

A York University professor’s new book, released Friday, takes an in-depth look at the life and work of influential American psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner.

Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to Life, 1950s-1970s, is the first full-length study of the ways in which Skinner’s ideas transcended the laboratory and became ingrained in the post-war public’s everyday lives.

Left: B.F. Skinner, at the Harvard University Psychology Department, circa 1950

"Skinner’s work has a remarkable legacy,” says author Alexandra Rutherford, professor in York’s Department of Psychology, Faculty of Health. “The principles he developed are in use today throughout America and around the world."

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) was one of the most prominent figures in 20th-century psychology. A best-selling author, inventor and social commentator, he was known for his innovative methods and controversial theories. Among these was his invention of the air crib, featured prominently on the cover of Beyond the Box. The invention, an easily-cleaned, temperature and humidity-controlled box, was designed to improve upon the traditional crib, while easing the burdens associated with childcare.

Rutherford uses extensive archival material and case studies to profile Skinner and his followers’ “technology of human behavior,” as it became known during the post-war scientific and technological revolution.

Beyond the Box examines the Skinnerians’ creation of human behavior laboratories, as well as management programs for juvenile delinquents, psychiatric wards and prisons. The volume details their influence on the self-help industry, with popular books on how to quit smoking, lose weight and become more assertive.

"I really wanted to delve into the ways in which Skinner and his acolytes integrated their theories into Americans’ lives," says Rutherford. "This book is essentially a look at how his behavioral theories met – and continue to meet – real-life challenges. It analyzes both the enthusiasm and caution with which these efforts were received."

Beyond the Box is published by University of Toronto Press.