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December Greetings from Skinner, B. F.
On December 23, 1940, the United States Post Office in Minneapolis, Minnesota stamped a postcard for delivery to “Worcester, Mass.” It was from B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) to “Drs. Shakow and Rosenzweig.” It was a Christmas card Skinner sent to friends and colleagues that year and other years (Julie S. Vargas, personal communication, November 14, 2019). Today, the postcard is a historical artifact — with a history.
As for its construction, the figure on the front of the postcard was seemingly hand-pressed or machine-printed from a wood block (see Fig. 1). That Skinner pressed or printed it and may have carved the block is consistent with his skills in the fine and the mechanical arts throughout his lifetime. He invented practical, labor-saving devices; he printed signs and painted pictures; he worked on the craft of writing; he built wooden models of ships; and he constructed research equipment. He also drew many of the figures in his 1956 article, “A Case History in Scientific Method.” The postcard exemplifies his artistic skills and sensibilities.
The figure’s title is quintessential Skinner — “An Operational Definition of Christmas.” It conveys his interest in operationalism and logical positivism in the 1930s — and his sense of wry humor. It also presages his 1945 article, “The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms,” where he broke with standard operationalism and logical positivism and the latter’s successor — logical empiricism. In their place, he advanced a descriptive positivism; he proposed that the meaning of terms lie in variables that control their use; he included private events in his system of behavior; and he named the philosophy of his science radical behaviorism. The article is, today, canonical.
The oddity in the figure is the line graph. It is not a cumulative record. Skinner was renowned for using cumulative records in collecting data and reporting his research. For the postcard, though, he may have foregone cumulative records because not everyone on his Christmas card list may have been familiar with them. A line graph of the decrease in greetings on December 26 showed the change more clearly than a cumulative record would have. The latter would have just begun to flatten out. Skinner knew that graphs served research, not research, graphs.
The postcard’s address on the back to “Drs. Shakow and Rosenzweig” at Worcester State Hospital (see Fig. 2) was to David Shakow (1901-1981) and Saul Rosenzweig (1907-2004). In the 1930s, they were Skinner’s colleagues in psychology at Harvard, albeit in clinical psychology. By 1940, they were developing an auditory apperception test — an auditory Rorschach test — based on Skinner’s 1936 article, “The Verbal Summator and a Method for the Study of Latent Speech.” Skinner addressed latent speech again in what he believed would be his most important work — his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior.
In December 2019, Skinner’s postcard is more than an artifact in the history of behavior analysis — with a history. It is this year’s greetings from the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies to its friends around the world. The postcard sets the occasion.
(To learn more from Dr. Morris about the history of Skinner’s seasonal greetings, click on the link to the right or below labeled “A natural history of ‘December greetings from Skinner, B. F.’”)
I dedicate this to Neil J. Salkind – friend, colleague, and printer par excellence. I purchased Skinner’s “December Greetings” from a private party on an eBay auction on July 1, 2017. I thank Derek D. Reed for alerting me to the auction, Barry Fitzgerald for consulting about the postcard’s construction, and Earl Richardson for the photography.