Alex describes his ordeal (words in parentheses are translations of the previous word and are not included in the actual text):



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Classical Conditioning

In his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, Anthony Burgess sets up a macabre classical conditioning scene to which he subjects his main character, Alex, who has an insatiable hunger for violence. As the story begins, Alex, along with his droogs (friends), commits brutal acts of random violence including theft, rape, and eventually murder, for which he is arrested and sentenced to fourteen years in prison. After two years behind bars, Alex hears about and agrees to participate in a research experiment called Ludovico’s Technique, which is, in all respects, Pavlov’s classical conditioning.

I have almost forgot the taste of fears:

The time has been my senses would have cool’d

To hear a night-shriek; and my fell of hair

Would at a dismal treatise rouse and stir

As life were in’t. I have supp’d full of horrors;

Direness, familiar to my slaughterous thoughts,

Cannot once start me.

–Macbeth, Act V, Scene 5, by William Shakespeare

As the experiment begins, prison doctors inject Alex with a nausea-inducing serum, then strap him into a chair, prop open his eyelids so that he cannot close them nor blink, and force him to watch violent and sexually explicit films. While he watches the films and as the serum takes effect, Alex becomes violently ill. And, after numerous conditioning episodes (the pairing of the serum and the violent films), Alex becomes ill when he is exposed to violence, even when he is not injected with the serum.

Alex describes his ordeal (words in parentheses are translations of the previous word and are not included in the actual text):

Where I was wheeled to, brothers, was like no sinny (cinema) I had ever viddied (seen) before. True enough, one wall was all covered with silver screen, and direct opposite was a wall with square holes in for the projector to project through, and there were stereo speakers stuck all over the mesto (place). But against the right-hand one of the other walls was a bank of all like little meters, and in the middle of the floor facing the screen was like a dentist’s chair with all lengths of wire running from it…

What happened now was that one white-coated veck (man, guy) strapped my gulliver (head) to a like head-rest[.]… ‘What is this for?’ I said. And this veck replied…that it was to keep my gulliver still and make me look at the screen.… And then I found they were strapping my rookers (hands) to the chair arms and my nogas (feet) were like stuck to a foot-rest.… One veshch (thing) I did not like, though, was when they put like clips of the skin of my forehead, so that my top glaz-lids (eyelids) were pulled up and up and up and I could not shut my glazzies (eyes) no matter how I tried.

And then, O my brothers, the film-show started off with some very gromky (loud) atmosphere music coming from the speakers, very fierce and full of discord. And then on the screen the picture came on, but there was no title and no credits. What came on was a street, as it might have been any street in any town, and it was a real dark nochy (night) and the lamps were lit.… And then you could viddy (see) an old man coming down the street, very starry (old), and then there leaped out on this starry veck (old man; old guy) two malchicks (boys) dressed in the height of fashion,…and then they started to filly (play) with him. You could slooshy (hear, listen) his screams and moans, very realistic.… They made a real pudding out of this out of this starry veck, going crack crack crack at him with their fisty rookers (hands), tearing his platties (clothes) off and finishing up by booting his nagoy plott (naked flesh)…and then running off very skorry (quickly).

Now all the time I was watching this I was beginning to get very aware of a like not feeling all that well, and this I put down to the under-nourishment and my stomach not quite ready for the rich pishcha (food) and vitamins I was getting here. But I tried to forget this, concentrating on the next film which came on at once, my brothers, without any break at all.… I was sweating a malenky (little) bit with the pain in my guts and a horrible thirst and my gulliver (head) going throb throb throb, and it seemed to me that if I could not viddy this bit of film I would perhaps be not so sick. (pp. 12–16)

Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), a Russian physiologist who won a Nobel Prize in medicine for his work on digestive processes, is credited with discovering the “conditioned reflex” to which Burgess’s Alex was subjected. Pavlov, along with two other pioneers, Edward Thorndike and John Watson, influenced the fields of psychology and educational psychology in major ways. Because of their early efforts, behaviorism came to dominate psychology, especially in the United States, for the better part of the twentieth century.


Burgess, A. (1995). A clockwork orange. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.

In an American school if you ask for the salt in good French, you get an A. In France you get the salt. The difference reveals the nature of educational control.

–B. F. Skinner (1953)

Instrumental Conditioning

B. F. Skinner (B. F. stands for Burrhus Frederick; his friends called him Fred) is one of the best-known psychologists of all time. His work continues to influence millions of people from around the world and all walks of life, especially those involved in psychology and education. In his 1984 American Psychologist article titled “The Shame of American Education,” Skinner writes:

On a morning in October 1957, Americans were awakened by the beeping of a satellite. It was a Russian satellite, Sputnik. Why was it not American? Was something wrong with American education? Evidently so, and money was quickly voted to improve American schools. Now we are being awakened by the beepings of Japanese cars, Japanese radios, phonographs, and television sets, and Japanese wristwatch alarms, and again questions are being asked about American education, especially in science and mathematics. Something does seem to be wrong. According to a recent report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education (1983), for example, the average achievement of our high-school students on standardized tests is now lower than it was a quarter of a century ago, and students in American schools compare poorly with those in other nations in many fields.1 As the commission put it, America is threatened by “a rising tide of mediocrity.” (p. 947)

So, what does Skinner think will improve American education? Here’s an excerpt from his novel, Walden Two, which is the story of a utopian community—named for Henry David Thoreau’s Walden—where members are living out the principles of instrumental conditioning. In this excerpt, the story’s narrator is describing the community’s educational system to two visitors.

“We discussed the economics of community life,” he said, “I should have mentioned education. Teachers are, of course, workers, and I’m willing to defend all that I said about our economic advantage as specifically applied to education. God knows, the outside world is not exactly profligate in the education of its children. It doesn’t spend much on equipment or teachers. Yet in spite of this penny-wise policy, there’s still enormous waste. A much better education would cost less if society were better organized.

“We can arrange things more expeditiously here because we don’t need to be constantly re-educating. The ordinary teacher spends a good share of her time changing the cultural and intellectual habits which the child acquires from its family and surrounding culture. Or else the teacher duplicates home training, in a complete waste of time. Here we can almost say that the school is the family, and vice versa.

“We can adopt the best educational methods and still avoid the administrative machinery which schools need in order to adjust to an unfavorable social structure. We don’t have to worry about standardization in order to permit pupils to transfer from one school to another, or to appraise or control the work of particular schools. We don’t need ‘grades.’ Everyone knows that talents and abilities don’t develop at the same rate in different children. A fourth-grade reader may be a sixth-grade mathematician. The grade is an administrative device which does violence to the nature of the development process. Here the child advances as rapidly as he likes in any field. No time is wasted in forcing him to participate in, or be bored by, activities he has outgrown. And the backward child can be handled more efficiently too.

“We also don’t require all our children to develop the same abilities or skills. We don’t insist upon a certain set of courses. I don’t suppose we have a single child who has had a ‘secondary school education,’ whatever that means. But they’ve all developed as rapidly as advisable, and they’re well educated in many useful respects. By the same token we don’t waste time in teaching the unteachable. The fixed education represented by a diploma is a bit of conspicuous waste which has no place in Walden Two. We don’t attach an economic or honorific value to education. It has its own value or none at all” (pp. 118–119).

In this assessment, you are introduced to the history, research, and theories of B. F. Skinner and his colleagues who study instrumental conditioning and its effects on behavior.

1 There are many who would dispute Skinner’s and the commission’s claim that American schools are failing. For example, see Berliner, D. C., & Biddle, B. J. (1995). The manufactured crisis: Myths, fraud, and the attack on America’s public schools. New York, NY: HarperCollins.


National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983). A nation at risk. Retrieved from

Skinner, B. F. (1948, 1962, 1970). Walden two. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. (1984). The shame of American education. American Psychologist, 39(9), 947–954.