The Most Amazing Lie in History

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How a chicken farmer, a pair of princesses, and 27 imaginary spies helped the Allies win World War II.

In the weeks leading up to D-day, Allied commanders had their best game faces on. “This operation is not being planned with any alternatives,” barked General Dwight D. Eisenhower. “This operation is planned as a victory, and that’s the way it’s going to be!” Indeed, more than 6,000 ships were ready to cruise across the English Channel to plant the first wave of two million troops on the white beaches of Normandy. Nearly 20,000 vehicles would crawl ashore as 13,000 planes dropped thousands of tons of explosives and thousands of paratroopers.

The sheer size of the invasion—it would be the largest in history—was staggering. But so were the stakes. With the first day’s casualty rate expected to reach 90 percent and the outcome of World War II hanging in the balance, the truth was that Eisenhower was riddled with doubt. He’d transformed into an anxious chimney, puffing four packs of cigarettes a day. Other Allied leaders felt equally unsure. “I see the tides running red with their blood,” Winston Churchill lamented. General George S. Patton privately complained of feeling “awfully restless.” Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke was more blunt: “It won’t work,” he said. The day before the invasion, Eisenhower quietly penciled a note accepting blame in case he had to order retreat. When he watched the last of the 101st Airborne Division take off, the steely general started to cry.

They were worried for good reason. With so many troops and so much artillery swelling in England, it was impossible to keep the attack a secret. Hitler knew it was coming, and he’d been preparing a defense for months. Only one detail eluded him, and he was confident in a Nazi victory if he could figure it out—he needed to know where, exactly, the attack would happen. To make D-day a success, the Allies needed to keep him in the dark: They’d have to trick the Germans into thinking the real invasion was just a bluff, while making it seem like a major attack was imminent elsewhere. The task seemed impossible, but luckily, the British had a secret weapon: a short, young balding Spaniard. He was the king of con men, an amateur spy gone pro, the world’s sneakiest liar. He was also, of all things, a chicken farmer.

Juan Pujol Garcia had been working at a hotel when he decided to become a spy. Although he was born to a wealthy Barcelona family in 1912, Pujol had squandered his privileges. To the disappointment of his family, he dropped out of boarding school at 15, eventually enrolling instead at an academy for poultry farmers. At 21, he served six months of mandatory military service, but army life wasn’t for him: The pacifist ditched the cavalry and bought a movie theater. When that venture failed, he bought a smaller theater, which flopped too. Success chronically eluded him. By 24, Pujol had resigned himself to working on a sinking chicken farm and marrying a girl he wasn't sure he loved. His life was normal, if not boring.

But life in 1930s Spain was anything but boring. In 1931, King Alfonso XIII sensed his popularity crumbling and fled the country without formally abdicating, leaving Spain a political vacuum. Communist and Fascist groups violently fought for power. Bullrings became theaters for public massacres, and the corpses of politicians littered Madrid’s alleys.

When Spain plunged into civil war in July 1936, Pujol was supposed to report for duty, but he fled instead. He was soon caught and thrown in prison. Then, after unwittingly joining a jailbreak, he bolted to a safe house in Barcelona. He never saw his fiancée again. More than a year passed, and in 1938, a depressed and emaciated Pujol emerged from hiding. The escapee looked so bad, he was able to forge a document saying he was too old for the army. It would be the first of a growing snowball of lies.

Desperate for money, Pujol eventually landed a job managing a dumpy Madrid hotel ironically named the Majestic. The walls were grubby and the heating was shoddy, but in a certain sense, he had found a home. He was a passionate small-talker, and a hotel was a great place to meet people. And those people could be his ticket out of war-torn Spain.

One day, the Spanish Duke of Torre walked into the hotel and asked for a room. Pujol struck up a conversation about parties, which prompted the duke to complain that his aunts—two elderly pro-Franco princesses—were upset they couldn’t get their hands on any scotch since the civil war erupted. Pujol’s eyes lit up. He knew there was hooch across the border in Portugal. He didn’t have a passport—obtaining one was nearly impossible—but if anyone could get him one, it would be a pair of Franco-loving princesses.

So Pujol wagered the duke a deal: If he could procure Pujol a passport, then Pujol would procure some scotch. The royal agreed, and soon the Spaniard had his papers. He chauffeured the aristocrats into Portugal, bought six bottles of black market booze, and moseyed back into Spain with ease. Like that, he had a document that people killed, and were killed, for. He could escape.

The timing could not have been worse. There was nowhere safe to escape to. Weeks earlier, in September 1939, England had declared war on Germany. Hitler was beginning to gobble up Europe, and word of concentration camps had leaked past Spain’s censors. Pujol was trapped—and outraged. “My humanist convictions would not allow me to turn a blind eye to the enormous suffering that was being unleashed by this psychopath,” he wrote in Operation Garbo, a 1985 book co-authored by Nigel West. So instead of plotting his escape, Pujol began plotting schemes to help the Allies.

In January 1941, he walked into the British embassy and vaguely asked for a job as a spy. There was just one problem: He knew absolutely nothing about espionage. He floated from one embassy secretary to the next, talking in circles about “his services.” They offered their own services by showing him the door. Undeterred, Pujol returned home and fine-tuned his spiel. Then, he did the unthinkable: He called the German embassy and declared he wanted to spy for the Nazis.

The voice on the line was heavy and guttural. It told Pujol to go to the Café Lyon at 16:30 the next day—an agent in a light suit would be holding a raincoat in the back of the café waiting for him.

Pujol followed orders. He strolled into the café and introduced himself to an athletic, blue-eyed blond man sitting in the back. The agent greeted him with a cold nod. His code name was Federico, and he was specially trained to spot frauds. Pujol sat and started professing a devout—but false—love for Hitler and the New Order. The rant was cunning and bombastic. Off the top of his head, Pujol spun a rambling web of lies, rattling off names of nonexistent diplomats whom he claimed were friends. Impressed, Federico scheduled a second meeting.

Rendezvousing at a beerhouse, Federico told Pujol that the Nazi spy ring—the Abwehr—didn’t need more agents in Spain. Rather, they needed moles who could snoop abroad. Pujol beamed and told the recruiter about his passport. Federico nodded. A few days later, he told Pujol to go to Lisbon and charm the embassy into awarding him an exit visa. When Pujol got there, the embassy refused.

It looked like a dead end, but again, Pujol’s gift of gab proved handy. At his hotel in Lisbon, he befriended a portly, affable Galician man named Jaime Souza. On a night out together, Souza unveiled a document that made Pujol’s heart leap—a diplomatic visa. For the next week, Pujol accompanied Souza everywhere: amusement parks, nightclubs, cabarets, and, eventually, a casino. One afternoon, as the duo played roulette, Pujol pretended to double over with stomach cramps. He told Souza to keep playing while he ran back to the hotel. He raced to their room, opened Souza’s suitcase, pilfered the visa, and snapped a few photographs. Then, he returned to the casino floor as if nothing had happened.

Within days, Pujol had forged the document. Upon returning to Spain, he showed it to Federico: Pujol was in. The agent was so impressed, he took Pujol under his wing, stocking him with invisible ink, ciphers, $3,000 in cash, and a code name: ARABEL—Latin for “answered prayer.” His first assignment was to move to England, pose as a BBC radio producer, and crib British intelligence.

Pujol, of course, had no interest in actually spying for the Nazis. He wanted to be an Allied double agent. So instead of following orders to go to Britain, he went to Portugal. Confident the Allies would accept him now that he had access to German secrets, he dashed to the British embassy and showed them the ink, the ciphers, and the cash—he had everything a double agent needed. But the British reply was clear: “No.” Pujol was crestfallen. “Why,” he wondered, “was the enemy proving to be so helpful, while those whom I wanted to be my friends were being so implacable?”

Despite its name, Britain’s intelligence office was anything but. When the war began, the office was a factory of bad ideas. In 1941, it tried convincing the Germans that 200 man-eating sharks had been dumped in the English Channel. A year later, it seriously considered staging the Second Coming of Christ. (The plan was simple: A Jesus-like figure would magically appear across the German countryside, perform miracles, and preach peace.)

The decision to reject Pujol, however, was a matter of politics. The Allies wanted to keep Spain out of the war, so a Spanish double agent wasn’t enticing. Plus there was the minor detail that Pujol didn’t know a thing about England. He had never been there. He knew nothing about its military. He barely spoke the language. And now, in order not to blow his cover with the Abwehr, he had to convince the Nazis he was living there.

Without leaving Portugal, Pujol bought a map of England, a tourist guidebook, and a list of railway timetables—and began lying through his teeth. The Abwehr had told him to recruit subagents for help. Pujol had a better idea: He’d make them up. If something went sour, he could blame it on his imaginary employees. When something went right, he’d take the credit. With that, ARABEL started fabricating sources, spies, and stories. Using newspapers and telephone books as inspiration, Pujol wrote sprawling, baroque letters to the Abwehr that contained practically no useful information at all—they were just meant to waste the agency’s time. But Pujol knew he couldn’t keep up the ruse forever. If he wanted the Abwehr’s trust, he’d need to start sending some legitimate information. He asked for Britain’s help, but the embassy rejected him a fourth and fifth time.

Then, by chance, some of ARABEL’s reports struck too close to the truth. In one letter, he told the Germans that a convoy of five Allied ships had left Liverpool for Malta. Little did Pujol know, but the made-up report was, in reality, mostly correct. When Britain’s spy circle—the MI5—intercepted the message, agents panicked. A Nazi spy was loose in England! “The British were going crazy looking for me,” Pujol later recalled. He pulled a similar stunt weeks later, reporting that a major armada was departing Wales. This time, the convoy didn’t exist. But U-boats and Italian fighter planes scrambled to ambush it anyway, wasting tons of fuel and thousands of man-hours. Now this grabbed the Allies’ attention. In April 1942, the MI5 smuggled Pujol into London and hired him as part of its double-cross system. The Brits were so impressed with his ability to play a fervid Nazi, they code-named the amateur spy GARBO because, in their opinion, he was the best actor in the world.

As a bona fide double agent, GARBO’s network of imaginary spies ballooned. He enlisted a traveling salesman, a cave-dwelling Gibraltarian waiter, a retired Welsh seaman turned Fascist mercenary, an Indian poet nicknamed RAGS, an obsessive-compulsive code-named MOONBEAM, and even an employee at Britain’s Ministry of War. The bogus spies filed expense reports; some earned real salaries, all funded by the Nazis. By war’s end, GARBO had invented 27 personas. Working for the MI5 also meant that Pujol finally had real military information at his fingertips. So to build the Abwehr’s trust, he began giving away legitimate Allied secrets, peppering the reports with enough white lies to throw off the Nazis.

For example, during Operation Torch—the campaign to invade North Africa—three of GARBO’s imaginary agents reported seeing troops in Scotland, prepping for an invasion. (There weren’t any there.) The phantom agents spread rumors that Norway might be attacked, while others claimed that Dakar, Senegal, was next. The news confused the Nazis and kept them ill-prepared. To save face, GARBO wrote the Abwehr a letter one week before the true African invasion, detailing exactly when and where the Allies would attack. The information could have put thousands of troops at risk, except that the MI5 intentionally delayed the letter so it arrived one day late. The stunt saved lives and made GARBO look like an oracle.

Other stunts boosted his star power. When the Nazis wanted to bomb civilian trains in England, they asked GARBO for a train timetable. He sent an outdated one. When they wanted a book containing Royal Air Force secrets, GARBO mailed it in a cake with all the up-to-date pages deviously torn out. When Germans shot down a civilian plane between Portugal and London, killing everybody aboard—including Hollywood actor Leslie Howard—GARBO lambasted the Abwehr. One of his make-believe agents, a pilot, could have been onboard! Embarrassed, the Germans never attacked another civilian aircraft on that route.

By June 1943, Pujol had become one of Germany’s most prized spies. The Abwehr sent him new ciphers and vials of invisible ink—which made it easier for the MI5 to crack enemy codes. Meanwhile, the Nazis circulated a memo comparing him to a 45,000-man army. Pujol, who’d failed at school, at military service, and at business, was a virtuoso con man. And now, he had all of the ingredients he needed to cook up his biggest lie yet.

England's country lanes were choked with troops. It was early 1943, and planes, jeeps, and tents were everywhere. Locals joked that the island would sink under all the weight. To German reconnaissance aircraft, it was obvious that something big was about to happen. GARBO’s job wasn’t to hide the impending French invasion—it was to convince the Germans that it was going to happen in Calais, 200 miles north of Normandy. If he succeeded, most of the Nazi soldiers would be waiting in the wrong place when the real invasion happened. But few people believed the ploy could actually work. Tricking Hitler, intelligence officer Ralph Ingersoll once said, was the equivalent of “putting a hooped skirt and ruffled pants on an elephant to make it look like a crinoline girl.”

To pull it off, GARBO had to convince the Nazis that a nonexistent million-man army was assembling in southeastern England. The imaginary army was given a real name: the First United States Army Group, or FUSAG. According to Stephan Talty’s book Agent Garbo, the British spared no effort or expense to make the hoax look legit. Inflatable decoys—mock tanks and boats—dotted harbors and farms. Fake hospitals were erected. Bulldozers plowed faux airstrips, and soldiers built hundreds of phony wooden aircraft. When a bogus oil plant was constructed near Dover, the Brits requisitioned wind machines from a movie studio to blow dust across the Channel to make the construction site more believable. Newspapers showed King George VI inspecting the artificial plant. Carrier pigeons were released in enemy territory with property of fusag IDs wrapped around their legs, and special machines stamped tank tracks along dusty roads. Newspapers published fake letters complaining about the ruckus all the imaginary soldiers were causing. And as the date of the real invasion neared, General Patton appeared across south-eastern England to rally the make-believe troops.

GARBO “sent” his best agents to southeast England to report on the activity. Meanwhile, other phony agents reported seeing bombers in Scotland, which made an additional attack on Norway look imminent. The reports made Hitler so nervous that he kept 250,000 much-needed troops stationed in Scandinavia. By May 1944, German High Command was utterly confused. Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was convinced FUSAG was real. Just before D-day, the Allies bombed 19 railroad junctions near Calais—and none in Normandy. Accompanied with GARBO’s reports, the bombings led most Nazi bigwigs to agree: All signs pointed to Calais.

At 6:30 a.m. on June 6, 1944, the first Allied troops stormed onto the sands of Omaha Beach, Normandy. D-day had begun. Although the first boats met a stiff resistance, the Nazis were relatively clueless. The German Seventh Army stationed nearby was snoozing in its barracks. General Hans Speidel had told both his armies to reduce their states of readiness because of gloomy weather. General Friedrich Dollmann was so convinced June 6 would be a slow day that he scheduled war games. Meanwhile, Rommel had taken the day off to celebrate his wife’s birthday. (The day before, as the Allies prepared history’s biggest invasion, he was picking wildflowers.) When Berlin learned that forces were landing in Normandy, the staff refused to even wake Hitler. The ploy had worked—almost nobody took the invasion seriously. Nazi brass thought it was a scheme to distract them from the real invasion—at Calais.

Two days went by. Tens of thousands more troops hit the beaches, and German generals still refused to send in serious reinforcements: They were still waiting for the fake army to attack. On June 9, a desperate General Gerd von Rundstedt begged Hitler to send the Panzers, the Axis’s fearsome tank squads. Hitler finally caved. This was terrible news for the Allies: The Panzers could cripple the invasion.

But early that morning, GARBO sent a message about the fake army that would change history: “I am of the opinion, in view of the strong troop concentrations in southeastern and eastern England, which are not taking part in the present operations, that these operations are a diversionary maneuver designed to draw off enemy reserves in order then to make a decisive attack in another place ... it may very probably take place in the Pas-de-Calais area.”

The message was forwarded immediately to Berlin. Hitler’s personal intelligence officer underlined the word diversionary and handed it off to a higher official, who laid it on Hitler’s desk. The Abwehr chimed in confirming the information. Later that night, Hitler read GARBO’s message; shortly after, an order beamed from High Command: “The move of the 1st SS Panzer Division will therefore be halted.” Suddenly, nine of Germany’s meanest armored divisions—all bound for Normandy—stopped dead in their tracks and turned around to defend Calais.

It was GARBO’s greatest lie, and it arguably turned the tide of the war. The fake-out saved tens of thousands of Allied lives and secured a foothold on the continent. A month later, 22 German divisions were still waiting in Pas-de-Calais for the fake army. By December, when Allies had regained France, German commanders still believed FUSAG was real. Berlin was so convinced by GARBO’s reports that it awarded him an Iron Cross—an honor usually reserved for troops on the front line. Months later, the King of England followed suit and made Pujol a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire—one of the nation’s greatest honors. The self-made spy became the first and only person decorated by both sides.

D-day was the beginning of the end. Hitler killed himself the next spring, and the Abwehr told GARBO to give up—they’d never realized they had a double agent on their hands. By then, his network of phony agents had stolen £17,554—nearly $1 million to- day—from Nazi coffers. Soon, Pujol fled to South America to be, as he put it, “forgotten, to pass unnoticed and to be untraceable.” Four years later, the MI5 reported that he had died of malaria while exploring Africa.

But this too was another brilliantly executed lie—a rumor spread to shake off any vengeful Nazi loyalists. Pujol, then 36, was alive and well in Venezuela, where his life became boring and normal again. He married, had two sons, opened a book- store, and got a job with Shell Oil as a language teacher. He even tried going back into the hotel business, where, again, he failed miserably. He lived off the radar until 1984, when the enterprising journalist Nigel West found him after a decade-plus search. That year, a 72-year-old Pujol returned to London for an emotional reunion. His former MI5 colleagues were gobsmacked. “It can’t be you,” one of them burst. “You’re dead!”

West took Pujol to Omaha Beach for D-day’s 40th anniversary. When the spy saw the cemetery—with its long, neat rows of white headstones—he dropped to his knees and burst into tears. He felt responsible for each grave. But as the day wore on, word circulated that Pujol was there. Hordes of gray-haired men flocked to him, begging to shake his hand. One man, surrounded by family and fellow veterans, took Pujol by the arm and beamed. “I have the pleasure of introducing GARBO, the man who saved our lives.” Again, tears flooded Pujol’s eyes. This time, though, he smiled.

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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