Skinner Box, but For Children!

We love B.F. Skinner.

The original behaviorist, Skinner was an American psychologist most famous for his work with operant conditioning — getting the desired behavior from a person or child through reinforcement, punishment and extinction.

But like Freud, Skinner’s time was in the 1950s and the 1960s, a time when behaviorism was a fresh and new approach to tackling problems with human behavior and emotions — a direct reaction to the psychoanalytic school of thought that was prevalent throughout much of international psychology. Cognitive behaviorism, a reaction itself to Skinner’s strict behavioral paradigm, acknowledged the importance of other factors in human psychology — you can’t treat people like mice in a maze. Well, you can, but you get far more effective results if you treat them more like humans instead of behaviorally-driven animals.

So it’s not surprising that Matthew Israel was a student of Skinner’s, and his theories on child care and development were molded at Harvard in the 1950s, according to this insightful article into how shock treatment became an acceptable form of treatment for children in a facility in Massachusetts.

Matthew Israel then went on to found the Behavior Research Institute in Canton in 1971, whose name was later changed to the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center. To me, it sounds like something from 1984, because children don’t just receive the typical kind of “education” one might expect from such a place — they receive electrical shocks, administered to the skin, per a device that Israel himself has patented:

In 1994, Matthew Israel and David Marsh obtained a patent for an “apparatus for administering electrical aversive stimulus.” (An image from the patent is shown above.) They dubbed the device a Graduated Electronic Decelerator, or GED, its purpose being to “decelerate” a patient engaged in inappropriate behavior by administering an electric shock.


The patent specifies self-injury as the sort of behavior to be deterred. But, according to a January article in the Globe, therapists at the Rotenberg Center have been accused of being more liberal in their definition of “undesired behavior,” delivering shocks for offenses such as swearing or shouting.


The problem with utopian solutions in real-life communities like the Rotenberg Center, of course, is that not only the children need to learn self-control; self-control is also required of those with their fingers on the shock button.

Indeed. We soon hope the Rotenberg Center finds more humane methods to help people with the kinds of serious disorders they deal with. We wrote about the gross abuse of this “treatment” back in December 2007, and followed up with another post in January 2008. The practice is still going on, every day of the week, and was approved by the Massachusetts courts in the 1980s.

Because shocking a child just seems so… 1960s. Four or five decades later, and we’re still using the same outdated psychological methods and theories, ones that — for adults — have largely been replaced or dismissed as rudimentary, simplistic and inadequate.

Apparently, for out-of-control children, it’s still okay to shock them into submission.



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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 23 Mar 2008
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2008). Shock Treatment, but For Children!. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 2, 2014, from


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