Living in the Real World

OR: The Avoidable Failure of Walden Two

by Ronnie Detrich, Utah State University


Section Editor’s Note: Ronnie Detrich, behavior analyst extraordinaire, passed away on September 9, 2023, bringing to a close a storied career in applied behavior analysis that spanned some 50 years. See the end of this post for some of the ways in which Ronnie was special. The post itself is adapted from one of Ronnie’s last articles (If you build it, will they come? Can you even build it? Why Walden Two fails as a model for societal change), which appeared in Journal of Behaviorology. The second half of the article, from which most of the following is taken, is pure Ronnie, focusing on two of his favorite questions: (1) How may we judge which interventions are likely to be effective? and (2) What is needed to implement interventions on a non-trivial scale? Ronnie wrote and spoke often on these themes; the novel wrinkle here is that the “intervention” of interest is societal redesign.

“It is ironic that what is arguably a science of influence (behavior analysis) has not been more effective at influencing the adoption rate of a science of influence” (Detrich, 2018)

Ronnie Detrich

Seventy-five years ago, B.F. Skinner’s (1948) Walden Two appeared as the first example in behavior analysis of exploring how scientific principles might support useful everyday technologies. The book has inspired many fans but also attracted critics, not the least because its vision for societal redesign has never been realized. A fair number of real Walden Two style communities (WTSCs) have been attempted, but most have not thrived, and none have approached the levels of economic prosperity, organizational stability, and self-sufficiency that Skinner imagined. Certainly none has proven to hold the blueprint for the wide-scale redesign of a society much in need of one.

Why not? Some skeptics (mostly from outside of behavior analysis) doubt that such a planful, evidence-driven society is possible or desirable. Others, (mostly from within behavior analysis) endorse the general approach of Walden Two but think modifications may be needed to the systems Skinner described.

There may be truth in both perspectives due to a blind spot in the Walden Two vision of societal re-engineering. To get a community operating in the real world for long enough to benefit from experimental management, three central insights are needed, none of which receives substantial attention in Walden Two and none of which, even three-quarters of a century after the book’s publication, has been adequately addressed in behavior analysis. These insights all are anticipated by a favorite quote from 1960s social activist Saul Alinksy:

I start from where the world as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be — it is necessary to begin where the world is if we are going to change it to what we think it should be. That means working in the system.

With the real world squarely in focus, specific points to be addressed are: (1) Contingency systems must be designed to address the real world into which they will be inserted; (2) Real people have to be convinced to support and participate in those systems; and (3) Only systems as expansive as the real world can change the real world.

Designing for Implementation

There is a big difference between knowing nature’s laws and knowing how to bend them to one’s needs. At the core of all beneficial behavior technology is positive reinforcement, but as Don Baer observed, knowing this does not make it easy to

…Find the ways necessary to get the positive reinforcement principle implemented in every real-world situation needful of it. The principle underlying positive reinforcement will be the same in every one of those situations, once they succeed; but the procedures necessary to accomplish that success will be…quite varied.

Skinner imagined an experimental management system for the Walden Two community, but actually said little about the specific contingency systems it incorporated. He took this approach because he didn’t know how to structure a working community. As he admitted later in a Psychology Today interview, “I had no idea how the principles could be applied to real live people.” Should the specific contingency arrangements described in the book prove to be effective in the real world, he allowed, “I’ll have made one of the most remarkable guesses in history.” Thus, Skinner did not doubt the principles, but he was unsure of the means of applying them. That is something that tends to get worked out in the trenches of implementation, not in the pages of a novel.

Studies of the process of implementing interventions argue against relying on simple trial and error. Inductive, evidence-driven tinkering, as per Walden Two, can be distinguished from evidence-based practice. In the former case, “experimentation” (gathering evidence of effectiveness) and implementation are intermingled. In the latter case, solutions are developed and tested for effectiveness before rolling them out. In this approach, community design would be no less “experimental” than in Walden Two; however, community residents would be insulated from many false starts that waste people’s time or even cause unintentional harm.

Another factor that can minimize false starts is a strong grounding of program design in theory. In this regard, the design of communities confronts a major contemporary shortcoming in the science of behavior. Skinner created a science of individual behavior, and his intellectual descendants have maintained that focus. But communities are not just collections of individuals acting independently in a confined space. They are, collectively, complex dynamical social systems, which Jack Marr explained as having these properties, among others:

(1) A number of interacting components or subsystems… are correlated in some way, (2) nonlinearity, that is combinations of states or inputs are not additive (or subtractive), (3) the behavior of the system is not predictable from separate consideration of its components, but only from understanding the relations among them… (4) … Spatial and temporal scale-invariant properties such that no characteristic event size or time [controls] the evolution of the system. This means their stochastic properties will follow power laws. (5) Self-organization in which patterns emerge from within the system through mutual interaction of the system’s elements.

Not all of that description may be transparent, but it probably doesn’t remind you of the applied behavior analysis or experimental analysis of behavior that you learned about in graduate school. For present purposes, suffice it to say that communities (with their “interacting components”) may have emergent properties that are not deducible from studying individual behavior. The key question for a community designer, thus becomes: What does the science of behavior teach us about non-linear effects that positive reinforcement can create in social systems?

Almost nothing, as it turns out. Basic behavior science has dived deep into what individuals do under schedules of reinforcement, for instance, and ABA has spawned countless interventions to address behavior challenges of individual clients. Yet, Jack Marr has observed, as a discipline “we have spent almost no time exploring the simplest interactive contingencies between just two organisms.” A handful of laboratory studies have examined what two individuals do when their contingencies of reinforcement are intertwined; only a few have explored what happens with larger groups. In ABA, individuals have been taught many skills that are useful in social situations, and some fairly simple group contingencies have been explored. But this falls far short of the complexity found in a complete social system, one that incorporates many behaviors of many individuals embedded in many interlocking contingencies.

Recruiting Buy-In

Even if Walden Two described every operational detail of its experimental community, and even if every detail were spot on with respect to how behavior is understood to work in social systems, there would still be a gaping hole in the implementation plan. This is because in the real world, unlike in isolated fictional locales inhabited by utopian communities, a real community will be carved out of the existing societal landscape. This is true both figuratively (the community has to exist somewhere) and figuratively (it cannot ignore existing societal systems). Selected real human beings will decide whether to join or ignore the community; others (policy makers) will make decisions about resource allocation and jurisdictional values that will affect community operations. Many of the people involved will lack a solid understanding of behavior principles. Therefore, much persuasion will be required to get a new community off the ground, and this effort would be advanced considerably by a reliable technology for recruiting buy-in.

For instance, one key goal for any new community is to persuade the first members to to give up their old lives to try, and hopefully embrace, practices and values that differ considerably from what they are used to. A community as non-normative as that in Walden Two might be a tough sell to people with behavioral histories in the existing word — hence the reaction of one Walden Two reviewer who suggested that:

Life in Walden Two would be intolerable to a normal human being brought up in contemporary American culture. Few of those living in a democracy will accept or admire Skinner’s schema of political science … or wish to be governed by specialists, particularly by psychologists”

If means exist for bridging the gap between normative histories and non-normative communities, neither Walden Two nor the science of behavior says much about them.

Another key goal is to gain the cooperation of societal mechanisms that are bigger than the community. Resource allocation and other critical practices in the existing world are controlled by governmental and corporate systems, by rich and powerful individuals and groups (in short, not by fans of Walden Two). And power rarely is ceded willingly, which is one factor that leads people to dream of utopias in the first place. The alternative, budging entrenched societal power structures, requires considerable expertise and effort. Unfortunately, little guidance on this originates in behavior science.

There is, however, one aspect of influence-seeking that is relatively well understood. In his classic book Diffusion of Innovations, Everett M. Rogers stressed that innovations are most likely to be widely adopted when they are compatible with a culture’s existing values, beliefs, and experiences. Alas, behavioral technology might not be one of those innovations. As Skinner himself often acknowledged, a behavioral perspective, at least as typically explained, often clashes with cultural norms. For instance, the technical jargon of behavior analysis does not tend to win converts, and it is telling that Walden Two employed no technical language. Instead, Protagonist Frazier seemed content to let the benefits of behavior technology speak for themselves. This is standard advice for persuading members of the public, members of other professions, and even policy makers. How often this advice is followed remains unclear, however, because discussions about WTSCs tend to focus on the technical aspects of an imagined community rather than how to talk to stakeholders whose diverse values and goals could affect the community’s success.

Scaling Up

A final conundrum about experimental communities regards, not simply how they can exist, but how they can address the macro-level challenge of reforming an entire society. Walden Two is a micro-level solution (not unusual for fictional utopias). Its 1,000 or so residents live in relative isolation in a small village in remote rural Ohio. But for the innovations of an experimental community to address society‘s problems, they must somehow be scaled up to societal proportions. This means developing systems that can operate expansively, adapting to numerous local conditions while simultaneously preserving their integrity. A science of scaling up that addresses this challenge currently is being developed, but without enough input from behavior analysts.

In the preface to a 1976 reprinting of Walden Two, Skinner himself acknowledged that scaling up might be hard: “What works for a small group,” he remarked, “is far short of what is needed for a nation or the world as a whole.” But Skinner apparently regarded scaling up as a false ideal:

What is so wonderful about being big? It is often said that the world is suffering from the ills of bigness, and we now have some clinical examples in our large cities. Many cities are probably past the point of good government because too many things are wrong. Should we not ask rather whether we need cities?… It has been suggested that the American of the future may be simply a network of small towns. But should we not say Walden Twos?

The preceding is one of Skinner’s rare logical hiccups. It does not follow that because contemporary cities are big, and some of them are flawed, that anything big necessarily is flawed. Nor does it follow that a network of WTSCs would necessarily be superior, especially given that Skinner provided no insight into how the world’s 8 billion inhabitants might all be educated sufficiently to establish and manage experimental communities (this is one type of scaling problem). Sketchy logic or not, Skinner likely distracted followers of Walden Two from the need to program for scaling up. It is hardly surprising that, as Stephen LeDoux has noted, real experimental communities often struggle to grow while preserving their original design.

Placing Reasonable Expectations on Walden Two

When it comes to reforming society, the problem faced by behavior analysts is not that Skinner’s grand plan in Walden Two is wrong or incomplete. The problem is that Walden Two is not a grand plan in the first place. A fair parallel is the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. As government documents go, it is rather easy to follow and even somewhat stirring in its account of why a new grand plan for government is necessary. But the Preamble does not say how to run a nation. That is the job of the rather dense, dull, and intricate Constitution (not to mention countless national, state, and local laws and regulations which complement that document). The take-home point is that, in the quest to re-engineer society, behavior analysis currently lacks a Constitution to accompany Walden Two‘s Preamble.

If those who followed Skinner’s fictional lead by trying to establish real WTSCs are guilty of any sin, it is that of granting Walden Two greater significance than it deserves. The book may be a thought-provoking reflection on one approach to rebuilding society from the ground up, but it is not an instruction manual for accomplishing this. And that’s partly because what was true in 1948 remains true today: Behavior science has yet to properly define the First Principles that could frame such an instruction manual. On this point Skinner was guilty of sending mixed messages. When commenting on Walden Two he confessed to having merely guessed about how to structure societal systems, but in the book itself community spokesperson Frazier confidently asserts that, “The start has been made. It’s a question of what’s to be done from now on.” Unfortunately, a fictional sketch is neither a start nor a blueprint for one, and there is no sense in wrestling with very real problems of implementation until adequate science exists to properly design what would be implemented. This makes the job of the Walden Two enthusiast, first and foremost, one of solidifying the foundations on which future communities might be built. Among the tasks at hand:

  • To develop methods and programs of research to study dynamical social systems, both experimentally created and naturally occurring
  • To develop, and borrow from other disciplines, technologies for influencing individuals, groups, and the public policy process
  • To learn everything there is to know about implementation science and scaling up

Though less entertaining and motivating than reading a utopian novel, these steps are more likely to pave the way for creating successful experimental communities.

Section Editor’s Note: About Ronnie Detrich

Ronnie Detrich was the best all-around behavior analyst I have personally known. Among the things for which Ronnie will be remembered is high intellectual and ethical standards and an attendant stubborn refusal to compromise even under difficult circumstances. In early career, he delivered model interventions in the back wards of neglected state hospitals. At mid-career, as clinical director of the Spectrum Center, he demanded and supervised data-driven, conceptually-rigorous case and staff management practices, even as the center grew from a boutique operation to a multi-site behemoth. In his later career, he invested a financial windfall into the founding of the Wing Institute for Evidence-Based Education which, among other things, took up two of the toughest challenges of all: getting behavior analysts to prioritize regular education and to embrace the emerging science on disseminating and implementing programs at scale. Subsequently, at an age when most people are well into comfortable retirement, he began an academic appointment at Utah State University so he could teach the next generation about critical topics like clinical ethics, behavior theory and philosophy, and single-case design.

No matter how busy Ronnie might get, he always found time to keep learning. He read and synthesized, well, just about everything: basic science, theory, and applied science from many disciplines. He sought out the company of anyone with something interesting to say, whether that be a behavior analyst or an “outsider,” an established expert or a lonely student at a poster session. He was the most curious, best-informed, most analytical person many people ever met. 

Ronnie’s unwillingness to compromise was evident right up to the end. Even as illness gradually sapped his energy he kept his hand in ambitious Wing Institute projects and side gigs like the planning of the article that is excerpted here. Even after Ronnie no longer had the strength to sit upright he maintained high level video correspondence from his bed. During our last chat, his good friend Tim Slocum had to hold Ronnie’s phone for him, and Ronnie had to pause to rest occasionally, but his amazing mind kept churning with ideas about implementation science, practitioner burnout, single-case experimental design, and much more. Let’s honor him by keeping the churn going.