kitchen table math, the sequel: B.F. Skinner and the magic writing room

Monday, February 27, 2012

B.F. Skinner and the magic writing room

habit, part 1

Shortly after writing habit, part 1, I realized I have no business writing posts about habit. I'm supposed to be writing something else about habit, not blog posts.

So, for the time being, I'm going to re-recommend Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation, which is revelatory, and post a passage I tracked down on the subject of B.F. Skinner's magic writing room:
Meanwhile I had set up a pigeon laboratory in which Charles Ferster and I worked very happily together for more than five years. It was the high point in my research history. Scarcely a week went by without some exciting discovery. Perhaps the behavior we dealt with most effectively was our own. Near the end of our collaboration we found ourselves with a vast quantity of unanalyzed and unpublished data, and we proceeded to design an environment in which we could scarcely help writing a book. In it we both worked as we had never worked before. In one spring term and one long hot summer we wrote a text and a glossary and prepared over a thousand figures, more than 900 of which were published.
B.F. Skinner: An Autobiography (in Festschrift)
p. 15

We worked slowly at first, but the need to finish before my scheduled departure in June 1955 led us to organize our environment and to develop several ways of self-management. All our work was done in a room dedicated to writing and not used at other times. Interruptions were the first problem, which we handled by a decision not to take phone calls. When visitors appeared at the door, we routinely stepped in the corridor to speak with them briefly. The frequency of interruptions became very low and the writing room came to control our behavior. Usually we began before nine and stopped by lunch time. There was frequently a temptation to continue in the afternoon when we were working especially well or when the data was especially interesting, but our recently acquired data on fixed-ratio performances convinced us to seek a work schedule that kept our performance at maximum frequency for the period we were actually writing. The procedure worked very well. There were no warm-up or inactive periods in the writing room. Naturally we did not write elsewhere nor did we converse about outside matters nor do anything but work on schedules of reinforcement so long as we were in the writing room. At times the pace of the writing was so intense, and rewarding, that we began to control our outside activities in the fear that they might compete with or decrease the frequency of writing and graph-making. Bridge, chess and late social evenings were out.
Festschrift for B.F. Skinner by P.B. Dews
p. 45
Ardent Media 1970
“Schedules of Reinforcement with Skinner” by C.B. Ferster American University
The way I heard this story, back in college, was different.

The way I heard it, Skinner was alone in his magic writing room, and he systematically left the room any time so much as a stray thought crossed his mind. Eventually, by dint of heroic self-discipline and his rigidly adhered to exit strategy, he worked his way up to -- and maxed out at -- 45 minutes of sustained concentration without extraneous thoughts.

Forty five minutes was the outer limit, we psych students were told, the pinnacle of human attentional capacity: 45 minutes was to concentration what 120 years was to lifespan.I have believed this to be true for my entire adult life.

Come to find out it wasn't 45 minutes, and making a magic writing room wasn't hard. It was 3 hours, or possibly 4, and when the 3 or 4 hours were up, Skinner and Ferster had to force themselves to stop.

So .... number one.... damn. Sure wish I'd gotten the straight story the first time around.

And, number two, I'm putting myself under stimulus control.

Actually, I think I already did.

more anon

*Possible but not bloody likely. 


Allison said...

It's not 45 minutes or 3 hours. I have Indian friends who went to meditation camp throughout their childhood, and learned to do it for 6 to 8 hours. It is learnable.

A friend of mine and I would rent a motel room to finish a paper or thesis. It had to be a cheap one, with no good tv or pool or even a good bed to sleep on. Graduate student carrels at the library served this purpose too.

Did you ever read the comments on habit part 1?

Catherine Johnson said...

nope! haven't read!

will do ----

Catherine Johnson said...

The thing is, everyone can focus under the crunch. (Well, mostly everyone.) That's one of Piers Steels' points: he has the data showing massive increase in productivity as the deadline looms.

What Skinner did was learn how to write and analyze for hours on end EVERY day without fail and without an immediate deadline (though the two of them did have a pressing deadline imposed by the fact that Ferster was going to be leaving).

Catherine Johnson said...

Working under the gun is completely different from creating a reliable, sturdy, daily habit of producing.