In the Lab with Stevens and Skinner (2017-)

Presentation Date: 

Wednesday, February 1, 2017


William James Hall, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA

Skinner with pigeons

The basement of Memorial Hall was home to the Psychological Laboratories of two pioneers: S. S. Stevens and B. F. Skinner. At one end was the Psycho-Acoustic Laboratory, established in 1940 by Stevens at the request of the US Army Air Corps. His mission was to improve communication in noisy combat aircraft flying at high altitudes. After the war, Stevens studied scales of measurement, and developed a psychophysical power law, which related the strength of a physical signal to its perceived intensity. At the other end of the basement, Skinner set up his Pigeon Lab in 1948. He too had done war work, training pigeons to guide missiles to enemy targets. At Harvard he studied how behavior was shaped by the environment and the consequences of actions in a process he named “operant conditioning.” Operant conditioning applied to the actions of all organisms. “Men and women act upon the world, and change it, and are changed in turn by the consequences of their action,” Skinner remarked.

The exhibit sets up apparatus used by Skinner and Stevens in order to give spectators the sense that they are in the lab with these two scientists.


SS Stevens in lab in 1942


See also: 2010s