Behavioral Engineering, the Milk Bucket, & the Notebook

My understanding of the term “behavioral engineering” seems to be at odds with almost every source I examined with a recent Google search. What I found on the web was a lot of confusion between behavioral engineering and behavior control.

Clearly, controlling behavior is a bad thing when some malevolent governing body is exercising the control. We all know that you can condition pigeons to play ping-pong by using positive reinforcement, but we feel we must protect ourselves from those who would use reinforcement to condition our own behavior. But I don’t think that is what B.F. Skinner had in mind when he discussed behavioral engineering in his novel, “Walden Two.”

Skinner described behavioral engineering as arranging surroundings such that natural contingencies provide positive reinforcement for individuals performing a desired behavior. This is not the creation of some malevolent machine dispensing pellets when a person dances in a certain way, but designing an environment where doing the right thing is the simplest thing to do.

For example:

I once lived on a farm in Virginia (OK, it was a commune) that maintained a small herd of dairy cattle. While the milk stall started with a hard dirt floor, it soon became a muddy bog. Throwing straw into the mud helped, but the cows kept contributing waste to the floor, so it was always pretty nasty. To collect the milk, a bucket had to be placed on the muddy floor, so the bottom of the bucket was inevitably covered with muck.

We weighed the bucket before and after each cow was milked and recorded the yield in a spiral notebook that, for as long as anyone remembered, rested on a low table next to the stall. The milk record was barely legible because milkers without fail placed the bucket on the table after weighing the milk, and what was on the bottom of the bucket naturally transferred to the pages of the notebook.

After education, exhortation, and threatened exclusion from milking failed to change this undesirable behavior, one of the milkers came up with the perfect behavioral engineering solution: Josh built a tilted “desktop” attached to the wall next to the scale, just large enough for the notebook and a pen. Because it was at just the right height for writing comfortably and too precarious for the bucket, there was no temptation to put the notebook on the table or the bucket on the desktop. The clean records that resulted needed no education, no exhortation, and no threatened exclusions. The milkers did what they were “supposed” to do because that was the easiest and most normal thing for them to do with that simple environmental change.

Behavioral engineering isn’t always simple. Flushed with the success of changes in the milking barn, the kitchen crew set out to find a way to reduce kitchen clutter. With many different people putting away pots, pans, dishes, cutlery, flatware, and utensils, it was always an effort for cooks to locate the items that they were looking for. The well-intentioned kitchen organizers put pegboard up on the wall with strategically placed hooks and carefully drawn outlines for each utensil. Needless to say, it took more time and effort to find the “appropriate” place to hang the items than it did to throw them in a drawer (pick a drawer; any drawer). The illustrated pegboard gradually lost its hooks but remained on the wall for a few months as a reminder to future ambitious organizers. I don’t recall this problem ever being solved.

So, when someone starts lambasting behavioral engineering as a nefarious infringement on their freedom, just tell them about the milk bucket, the notebook, and the slanted desktop.


About Jesse

My name is Jesse Blatt. My first name is actually “Ramon,” but I haven’t used that name, except for official purposes, since 1970. I have a high school diploma and a PhD…nothing in between. I’ll get around to explaining that in a post sometime. From time to time I will be posting true stories from my past, though not in any special order. I’ve been fortunate to have had a dozen or so different careers, most of them very satisfying, some fairly frustrating, and none that I wish had never happened. In my many former lives, I have been a mail clerk, radio and TV engineer, radio announcer, electronics engineer, college instructor, psychologist, research consultant, Federal employee, supervisor of research professionals, computer programmer, web designer, instructional designer, construction site handyman, and carpenter, not necessarily in that order.
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2 Responses to Behavioral Engineering, the Milk Bucket, & the Notebook

  1. Doug Blatt says:

    That was Twin Oaks… right? I remember the cows there… And then there was the time that the sow escaped and us kids went chasing after it… Things sure have changed…
    – Doug


    • Jesse says:

      Right! There are some photos on the TO website of you and Steve around the time of Hurricane Camille (1969). Look for “Archives.” Their captions are kind of “off,” but that’s probably because no one there now was around then.


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