"Go For Broke": The Story Behind the Most Decorated Military Unit in U.S. History

US Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
US Army Signal Corps, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2011’s Captain America: The First Avenger, Captain Steve Rogers single-handedly frees captured Allied soldiers from a Nazi base. "What, are we taking everybody?" one soldier asks, referring to another soldier who appears to be Japanese. "I’m from Fresno," the soldier retorts.

The scene was a hat tip to the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, an all-Japanese-American regiment that, during World War II, became the most decorated unit in U.S. history—a distinction it still holds. Members of the 442nd earned 21 Medals of Honor, 52 Distinguished Service Crosses, five Presidential Unit Citations in just one month, and 9486 Purple Hearts, along with thousands of other honors, during the regiment’s two active years in World War II. Yet when asked about their distinguished service, most of them said they were simply doing their duty.

ONE PUKA PUKA AND THE 442ND

In the months following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans from the West Coast and Arizona were interned under Executive Order 9066; about two-thirds were U.S. citizens. Americans of Japanese ancestry were also reclassified as “enemy aliens” and were no longer allowed to join the military. Despite the fact that Japanese-Americans had served in the military for decades, many already-enlisted troops were discharged from service. The government even seized items like cameras or radios from Japanese-Americans, in case they might use them to spy.

Although some protested these measures, others sent letters and telegrams to President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of War Henry Stimson arguing that Japanese-Americans, even the second generation known as the Nisei, were not to be trusted because they were "fanatically devoted to [their] country of origin and emperor," as one California woman wrote. Several cities, 16 California counties, a variety of social clubs, and even some members of Congress registered similar concerns. Some congressmen even called to exchange Japanese-American citizens for Americans held prisoner by Japan.

The Nisei troops, as they were often known, wanted the opportunity to prove that their loyalty was to the United States—not Japan. Many of these soldiers had witnessed the attack on Pearl Harbor and the aftermath, and they wanted to support their country in any way they could.

Just weeks after Washington gave the military ban order, a group of ROTC students released from the Hawaiian Territorial Guard decided that even if they couldn’t serve as soldiers, they still wanted to help. They gained the approval of regional commander General Delos Emmons to form the Varsity Victory Volunteers, a labor support battalion that included more than 160 students and other individuals of Japanese descent. In early 1942, the group began building roads, fences, and military bases under the supervision of the Army Corps of Engineers.

“Hawaii is our home; the United States is our country,” the youths wrote in a letter to Emmons volunteering their services. “We know but one loyalty and that is to the Stars and Stripes.”

But the Varsity Victory Volunteers were just the beginning. At the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, the Hawaii National Guard also included more than 1400 Nisei members—about half its total. The Nisei troops were ordered to turn in their weapons and ammunition and segregated from their fellow soldiers. Concerned about the Nisei's potential response if Hawaii was again attacked by Japan, military leaders sent them to the mainland, and eventually to Camp McCoy in Wisconsin. There they formed the 100th Infantry Battalion (Separate), with the separate referring to the fact that they were initially an orphan unit without a larger regiment. They were also known as the One Puka Puka (Puka is Hawaiian for "hole," as in zero).

The 100th Infantry Battalion receiving grenade training
The 100th Infantry Battalion receiving grenade training.
U.S. Army Photo, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

One Puka Puka quickly distinguished themselves during their training, and after watching the “triple-Vs” and the 100th in action, the War Department pushed President Roosevelt to change his stance on Japanese-American military service. He did so in early 1943, and the Army soon asked for 4500 Japanese-American volunteers. They got an overwhelming 10,000, mostly from Hawaii. Nearly 1200 volunteered from internment camps.

“I talked to my father, and he said, ‘Well, you’re an American citizen, so if they want you to join the Army, it’s your duty,’” veteran Stanley Matsumura said in Peter Wakamatsu’s documentary Four-Four-Two: F Company at War. He and his friends did just that.

“I was 19 and living in Yoder, Wyoming when I first heard the news of Pearl Harbor,” Hashime Saito wrote to Dear Abby in December 1980. “I canceled my plans to enter the university and immediately enlisted in the U.S. Army.”

At his brother’s wedding at Poston Relocation Center, Technical Sergeant Abe Ohama told friends and family, “All of us can't stay in the camps until the end of the war. Some of us have to go to the front.”

The volunteers became the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

BANZAI!

At first, the 442nd wasn’t particularly welcome in Europe. When Army Chief of Staff General George Marshall offered the regiment to General Dwight Eisenhower to fight in France, the latter turned him down with a polite, “No, thank you.” Instead, they found a home with General Mark Clark in the Fifth Army, fighting in Italy.

The 100th finished training and went first, initially joining the 34th Infantry Division, one of the divisions that made up the Fifth Army. They soon earned their reputation in blood. Whether out of a desire to prove their loyalty or just a gung-ho spirit, the Nisei soldiers went after military objectives with a single-minded ferocity.

They entered combat in Italy on September 29, 1943, and soon saw fighting in the southern part of the country. The battalion fought in Salerno and the Volturno river, where the soldiers surprised their fellow American troops with their first banzai charge. (In Japanese tradition, a banzai charge is a last-ditch, often suicidal attack, and the exclamation is a traditional battle cry.) According to the Go For Broke National Education Center, named for the regiment's motto, the banzai charge occurred after a sergeant heard that one of the most respected officers in the battalion had been either wounded or captured: "Many of the soldiers of the 100th had known each other since they were children. Their dedication to one another was such that they never left a man behind, even in death." The sergeant turned out to have heard mistakenly, but the impression of dedication on their fellow soldiers remained.

Yet the 100th truly earned their reputations at the Battle of Monte Cassino. General Clark called the battle “the most grueling, the most harrowing, and in one aspect perhaps the most tragic, of any phase of the war in Italy.” Fighting began in blizzard conditions in the middle of January 1944, and the goal was to take the Gustav Line, a defensive line the Axis forces had created along the natural mountainous landscape of the area that blocked the Allies from Rome.

The battle to take the high ground was long and bloody for everyone involved, and the 100th was no exception. In fact, it was at Monte Cassino that they gained the nickname “The Purple Heart Battalion.” The Monte Cassino Abbey, atop one of the mountains, overlooked an open field with little cover for troops and provided Nazi soldiers and artillery a place to entrench themselves. From behind walls, they fired at any Allied troops who dared to rush the mountain.

On the night of January 24, the 100th’s A and C Companies crossed the dangerous field, checking for tripwires and maneuvering over freezing, flooded irrigation ditches before finding cover behind a wall. When B Company moved to join them after sunrise, only 14 of the 187 men made it to the wall, according to the Go For Broke center.

The company was ordered into reserve—kept away from the action and allowed to rest—but joined the fighting again on February 8. They made good progress and held a key hill for four days but retreated again when the 34th Division was unable to keep up with their pace. Finally, after Allied air reinforcements bombed the ancient abbey into ruin on February 15, the 100th sent wave after wave up the mountain, losing 200 more men before they were relieved.

Their commander, Major Casper Clough Jr., told a correspondent with The New York Times that they were the best soldiers he’d ever seen. “They are showing the rest of the people they are just as good citizens as the next John Doughboy,” he said.

General Mark Clark fastens citation streamers on 100th battalion flags for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theater
General Mark Clark fastens citation streamers on 100th battalion flags for outstanding performance of duties in the Mediterranean theater.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Because of the battalion’s heavy casualties—the 100th had lost about 800 of its 1300 soldiers since arriving in Europe, more than 200 over just four days at Monte Cassino—other Allied forces took over at Monte Cassino. The 100th regrouped to receive reinforcements, then fought their way over 40 miles from Anzio, Italy, north to Rome, where they were soon joined by the rest of the 442nd and officially attached to the regiment.

By May 1944, when the 442nd’s Second and Third Battalions sailed for Europe, the 100th had racked up a stunning three Distinguished Service Crosses, 21 Bronze Stars, 36 Silver Stars, and 900 Purple Hearts. The Second and Third Battalions quickly showed they were determined to not only uphold the reputation of Nisei soldiers in Europe, but to add to it.

COMBINING THEIR EFFORTS

When the three battalions met outside of Rome to capture the small town of Belvedere, the Second and Third Battalions volunteered to lead the fighting, allowing the 100th to stay in reserve—but One Puka Puka wouldn't be held back. The 442nd destroyed the German troops, took the town, and captured a huge number of enemy weapons. They even decimated an entire SS battalion alone, losing only four of their own men.

By then, French commanders were asking the regiment to join the fighting in the Vosges Mountains in eastern France, near the border with Germany. The 442nd fought in Bruyeres and Belmont, but perhaps their most famous campaign was the rescue of the 141st Infantry Regiment’s First Battalion—known as the Lost Battalion.

A 442nd squad leader looks for German movements in a French valley
A 442nd squad leader looks for German movements in a French valley
U.S. Army, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

During fighting in the Vosges Mountains, the 141st’s First Battalion had been cut off from the rest of the Allied Forces and nearly 300 men from Texas were trapped by 6000 German troops.

On little rest and with a shortage of men, the 442nd answered the call to rescue their Texan brothers. The mountainous terrain was made more difficult by the icy weather of October 1944, and the 442nd had to travel on soggy dirt trails and fight through German roadblocks to reach the trapped men.

The 442nd’s Second Battalion won a hill from the Germans and took prisoners, but while it helped break the German line, it wasn’t enough to free the trapped men. The Lost Battalion—which had gone without food for several days—beat off five waves of German attackers. The Third Battalion tried to fight from the outside, but got no closer to reaching the Texan troops.

Seeing no other choice, the 442nd decided to “go for broke” straight up the middle in another banzai charge. One of the leaders of the charge, Private Barney Hajiro, single-handedly took down two German machine gun nests. After six days of fighting, the Nisei managed to break through to the lost Texans.

Whether they were still trying to prove themselves or not, the 442nd did just that in the rescue. The Milwaukee Journal summed up the shifting opinion about “Our Heroic Nisei” on November 8, 1944, just days after the campaign:

“At the last minute, relief troops got through. Who were they? Japanese Americans of the famous 442nd regiment—the outfit that had already blazed its way to glory in the toughest spots in Italy. What the relieved Yank soldiers think of their Nisei buddies is best expressed by one grateful private who said: ‘Boy, they are real Americans!’”

For their valor, Governor John Connally made all the surviving members of the 442nd “honorary Texans” in 1963.

The 442nd continued to fight in major battles in France and Italy through the end of the war, often on the front lines. They guarded 12 miles of the French border in what became known as the Champagne campaign, and joined other American forces in liberating the Dachau concentration camps in April 1945.

Thousands of the regiment’s men were killed or wounded in the war, including future Hawaii Senator Daniel Inouye, who was nearly killed in two separate incidents—once, when a bullet to his chest was stopped only by two silver dollars, and again when he nearly bled out in battle refusing to leave his men behind.

CAPTURING HEARTS AND MINDS

Back on the home front, the 442nd’s reputation helped to build bridges between Americans of Japanese ancestry and their fellow citizens. Army officials authorized more widespread publicity for the 442nd—provided it wouldn’t give away key military intelligence. By then, war correspondents on the front were already eager to share stories about the Nisei troops.

Lieutenant Edward Chasse relayed the bewilderment of German troops captured by the 100th to the Associated Press. In a story published by the Oakland Tribune on February 17, 1944, Chasse said, “We got some prisoners and they didn’t know what was happening. They wondered if the Axis had turned against them.”

Writing for The New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle, C.L. Sulzberger described an interaction between a captured German officer and an American interpreter after the prisoner saw members of the Nisei regiment. “Said the German to an interpreter, ‘But they look Japanese; it can’t be.’ Said the interpreter, ‘Sure, didn’t you know they were on our side? Or do you believe this stuff Goebbels puts out?’”

Members of the 442nd who sacrificed their lives on the front became some of the human faces of the war—such as Pfc. Sadao Munemori, who was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

The Glendale, California, native was killed on April 5, 1945 when he and his fellow soldiers were pinned down by enemy fire. He attacked enemy gun nests alone so his comrades could escape; he nearly made it out himself, but threw himself onto a grenade just feet from safety to save his fellow soldiers.

But while the Nisei soldiers of the 442nd came home to praise and gratitude from some Americans, others were unwilling to look beyond their heritage.

As interned Japanese-Americans and Nisei veterans were returning to their West Coast homes in the spring of 1945, the War Department began receiving reports of what it deemed terrorist attacks against them.

“In the most recent instances reported to Washington, cars have driven by Nisei homes at a high rate of speed and the occupants have fired into the house,” one newspaper reported. “In one case, the homeowner was a returned veteran. With him was a Nisei friend in uniform on furlough.” Fortunately, they were not injured.

Some attacks were more subtle. A Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Spokane, Washington, drew attention after it denied membership to Private Richard Naito. His former commanding officer, Virgil Miller, sent an angry complaint to the post, arguing that "When supposedly reputable organizations such as yours violate the principles and ideals for which we fight, these young Japanese Americans are not the only ones to wonder about our war aims." Corporal George Gelberg, representing a group of veterans stationed at nearby Geiger Field, wrote a letter to the editor of the Spokesman-Review, saying, “The men wished it to be understood that an attack on any minority group in our country strengthens the hands of the Fascist enemies who have been beaten on the military field.” Other Nisei veterans organized a campaign to apply to the post, and when news of the rejection reached the national VFW organization, they issued an apology and stated that Japanese-American veterans were welcome to join.

President Barack Obama and guests after signing a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion
President Barack Obama and guests after signing a bill to grant the Congressional Gold Medal to the 442nd Regiment and 100th Battalion.
White House, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In 2011, nearly 70 years after Japanese-American citizens were interned and briefly banned from military service, the 442nd was honored for its members’ sacrifices. Congress awarded the veterans of the 442nd, the 100th Infantry Battalion, and the Military Intelligence Service, which performed intelligence work against the Japanese military, with Congressional Gold Medals—the highest civilian award Congress can bestow.

During the ceremony when the awards were delivered, Representative Adam Schiff of California, who co-sponsored the bill honoring the veterans, said: "These American heroes did defend our freedoms and our ideals ... even when these ideals were denied them at home."

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

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