Better known as B.F. -- is 78, a circumstance that does not seem to cause him any concern. Skinner, it is evident, has spent some time doing some personal application of his theories of behavior to aging and specifically to his own experience. He shared his experiences -- he declined to call it research -- with an appreciative audience yesterday at the American Psychological Association.
If drawing power is any gauge, then Skinner can still be considered to be in his prime. He attracted a standing-room-only crowd of more than 600 persons who gathered in the International Ballroom West of the Washington Hilton yesterday to hear him talk on "Intellectual Self-Management in Old Age."
Skinner was quick to disclaim any notion that what he had to say was based on scientific research. His lecture was more in the nature of a report back from someone who has been on a trip to a not-altogether-familiar country. Skinner described what he had to say as an outline of "some of the ways in which I have tried to avoid growing old as a thinker." Some of what he had to say seemed eminently simple:
"If many of the problems of old people are due to shortcomings in their environments, the environments can be improved . . . If you cannot read, listen to book-recordings. If you do not hear well, turn up the volume on your phonograph (and wear headphones to protect your neighbors). Food can be flavored for aging palates. Paul Tillich, the theologian, defended pornography on the ground that it extended sexuality into old age. And there is always the possibility, secondhand though it may be, of living the highly reinforcing lives of others through literature, spectator sports, the theater and movies, and television."
But he also expressed elegant scorn for the kind of patronizing that younger people bestow on the elderly:
"Those who help those who can help themselves can work a sinister kind of destruction by making the good things in life no longer contingent on behavior. If you have been very successful, the most sententious stupidities will be received as pearls of wisdom, and your standards will instantly fall."
Skinner was not embarrassed to admit that he suffers from the conventional maladies of old age: a bad memory, especially for names; failing eyesight; fatigue, both mental and physical. He had helpful hints to offer on how to combat these problems.
* On forgetting names: "Appeal to your age . . . Or flatter your listener by saying that you have noticed that the more important the person, the easier it is to forget the name. Recall the amusing story about forgetting your own name when you were asked for it by a clerk. If you are skillful at that sort of thing, forgetting may even be a pleasure."
* On forgetting ideas: "The problem in old age is not so much how to have ideas as how to have them when you can use them . . . A pocket notebook or recorder helps to maximize one's intellectual output by recording your behavior when it occurs. The practice is helpful at any age but particularly so for the aging scholar. In place of memories, memoranda."
* On forgetting what you were going to say: "One solution is to keep saying it to yourself [his audience laughs appreciatively]; another is to appeal to the privilege of old age and interrupt the speaker; another is to make a note (perhaps pretending it is about what the other person is saying). The same problem arises when you are speaking and digress. You finish the digression and cannot remember why you embarked on it or where you were when you did so. The solution is simply not to digress--that is, not to interrupt yourself."
* On avoiding mental fatigue: "It may be necessary to be content with fewer good working hours per day . . . Leisure should be relaxing. Possibly you like complicated puzzles, chess and other demanding intellectual games. Give them up. If you want to continue to be intellectually productive, you must risk the contempt of your younger acquaintances and freely admit that you read detective stories or watch Archie Bunker on TV."
When he finishes, Skinner gets an enthusiastic ovation, then is beset by autograph-seekers, former students and general well-wishers. ("Hi. I've been a fan of yours," says one young man. "I wanted to shake your hand." Skinner obliges.)
For many of those who came for Skinner's talk, it was a chance to see a legend in the flesh -- the inventor of the "Skinner box," the man who taught pigeons to perform extraordinary tasks, the probable dean of American behavioral psychologists. Skinner, for his part, might have been back at his old stand in William James Hall, playing to an adoring gallery of Harvard undergraduates, salting his lecture with just enough wit to keep things light, but not letting the laughs get in the way of his message.
Skinner may well be the most famous academician of his generation. Skinner's celebrity resulted not so much from the 15 books he has published or his pioneering work as it did from his invention of the Air-Crib, a large, air-conditioned, sound-proof, germ-free, controlled environment. The box, Skinner explained in later years, was designed to provide a child with "a very comfortable, stimulating environment." His experiments with the box were instrumental in developing his theories of how behavior is reinforced by reward or punishment. Skinner's younger daughter spent part of her infancy in the box. When the inevitable question comes up about the Skinner box and his daughter, Deborah ("the one in the box," he says, to aid the question), Skinner handles it about as good naturedly as one might expect of a man who has probably heard this question a thousand times in his life. "There are all sorts of rumors about her. That she committed suicide. That she's suing me. Actually she's a very charming artist, married to a political scientist." That daughter lives in London. Skinner's older daughter is a professor of educational psychology at West Virginia University.
The trick to successful intellectual self-management, he explains later, is to find behavior "that works for you," continuing to use the repertoire that one has developed over a lifetime. Too old to play? Become a coach or a manager. As for himself, Skinner has largely given up research, but he is working on two joint book efforts and finishing the third -- and probably last -- volume of his autobiography. "I thought there would be four," he says, "but I decided there wasn't enough in the last 20 years of my life. So there are three."
The idea of retiring is alien to him. "I think it's a mistake for people to retire at all," he says. "I'm sorry society enforces retirement. There are things people could do that are rather like what they used to do . . . People who work hard think that not having to do anything would be wonderful. They don't know that it's the worst possible thing, not having to do anything. It's the problem of the leisure class, characteristically an unhappy class."
Although Skinner has his own share of afflictions -- he wears a hearing aid and reads only with great difficulty -- he seems to get by well enough. Though he walks to his office in William James Hall every morning -- "striding down Brattle Street" -- he admits to getting tired. Without blushing, he confesses that he does watch Archie Bunker nightly. It "comes on at 5:30--right before dinner. I usually get a good laugh out of it. I'm frank to say I enjoy it."
He reads detective novels, somewhat indiscriminately to hear him tell it. He likes to watch pro-football games on television, along with the Red Sox and programs on public television. He had to give up playing the piano when his eyes got too bad, he says, because he could never memorize music and he couldn't read the music and watch his hands.
Asked if he thinks the quality of his work is what it was 30 years ago, Skinner responds with a story about a young rabbi who is brought in to take over from an elderly, faltering rabbi who refuses to let go. Seeing the pathetic state of the older man, the younger rabbi admonishes his students, "Don't let that happen to me." As the years pass and the younger man becomes elderly and begins faltering himself, his students remind him of his charge to them. " 'Yes,' " Skinner says with a smile, quoting the now-ancient rabbi, " 'and I still want you to do it.' You never do know it," Skinner observes.
Skinner's advice to his contemporaries at this stage is to "hold on to what you've got." Speaking at his lecture, Skinner quotes with approval Cicero's observation that " 'Old age is honored only on condition that it defends itself, maintains its rights, is subservient to no one, and to its last breath rules over its own domain.' "
For himself, still active and more than alert, Skinner avoids characterizing how he is dealing with old age. "I'm enjoying life," he says. "That's all I can ask for." And then, adverting to the heart of his theories of behavior, he adds, "I want to do things that pay off. I like what I do."