The Minotaur of the Behaviorist Maze: Surviving Stanford’s Learning House in the 1970’s

Picasso's minotaur
Readers of The Jaguar that Roams the Mind occasionally want to learn more about my experiences growing up on the streets, in shelters, and in group homes in California during the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, especially in the Skinnerian behaviorist modification program of Learning House. I offer this more complete account, as it appears in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, Volume 51, Number 3, July 2011, pgs. 266-272.

This article is an autobiographical account of the author’s childhood struggle to survive in Stanford’s Learning House, a behaviorist program in the 1970s designed to help delinquents change. “The Minotaur of the Behaviorist Maze” offers an insider’s perspective on the consequences of treating a child as a stimulus–response organism in need of modification rather than as a human being in search of restoration of his or her innate wholeness.

In the mid-1970s as a boy of 9 years of age, divorce shook my family life and I fell out of the narrow world of the suburban middle-class into a children’s shelter in Pleasant Hill, California. The sudden loss of my family was painful enough, but what was to follow was to mark me even more deeply than my experience of incarceration. After a couple of months of scrambling to find my feet in the criminal underclass, I was placed in a Skinnerian behaviorist modification program with the Maoist sounding title of Learning House, sponsored by the Counseling Psychology Department of Stanford University.

Before I attempt to give an account of my experiences there, I need to state something about the condition of my memories of this time. Whereas my recollection of the shelter is clear (although colored with an adrenaline spiked haze of shock), and I have warm, colorful memories of my subsequent stay with a loving family in a foster home, my 9-month internment at Learning House is shrouded in darkness. I have no recollection of meaningful contacts or experiences—with the exception of clambering through the boughs of the huge tree growing in the front yard. It’s as if I was under an anesthesia that dulled my senses, and I have to reason as much from the lacunae in my memory as from the facts I still retain. There’s an underworld quality to these memories, like I am among the eidolon of the whispering dead, a fact that may be far more revealing than any objective information that might survive anyways. I offer this essay, therefore, not as an attempt to evaluate the overall efficacy of the Learning House program, but as a memoir of one child’s struggle to escape the behaviorist maze.

Learning House was a three-story, rambling building with many rooms. The inhabitants numbered around six children and two counselors, sometimes young married couples, who did half-week shifts in residence. The counselors were all students of behaviorist psychology at Stanford in their early twenties. Earnest and very white, they treated us with a disinterested kindness that occasionally turned into real warmth. I have no recollection of ever being hugged or feeling love or a sense of personal significance as an individual there. Equally strange, I have no recollection of older members of the behaviorist community being present. It was as if we were abandoned into the hands of young intellectuals, none of whom had children of their own.

My absence of well-being was also a consequence of being viewed primarily as a subject in a behaviorist regime, rather like the abstract consumer in the statistics of economic theory. We were subjects of study, and I remember the cold feeling that came over me when a director of the program showed me photos of us that had been displayed at a conference on the East Coast where the success of Learning House was touted. With an antiseptic smile, she told us we were now famous among the psychiatric community.

Yes, they were certainly good at smiling at Learning House.

Among the principal features of Learning House that are grilled into my mind is the jargon. What we soon learned on entry was to accustom ourselves to being under surveillance, that our behavior was being rated according to a point scheme that would determine our standing in a system of privileges. The score sheet was long, but the primary token to advancement an internee wanted to earn I still remember—the PPI, or positive peer interaction, which gained the lucky recipient 500 points. Its obverse, the NPI, or negative peer interaction, obviously docked an equal number of points. Counselors carried around little pads in which they jotted down notes about our behavior, and I remember gathering at the end of the day in the living room with the donated couches and carpets to hear the tallies that determined our privileges for the next day read out loud to us.

Surveillance did not cease when we left the doors of Learning House to go to school—my mother informs me I complained of being shadowed by graduate students who observed me from a distance. This was obviously awkward, and I can only speculate on how it affected my relation to society. It’s certain I turned anarchist at age 15, and have an intense resistance to “Big Brother” programs to this day. The secret police quality of the affair must have affected my relations with my instructors and peers. I can remember reading a note from our Chinese math teacher Mr. Chan, memorable for his habit of keeping human skulls sitting around his classroom, stating that he had thought I was a perfectly normal kid until being informed of the program I was in. Among my peers, I lost my sense of self-worth and adopted behavior patterns that ostracized me. Apparently, the behaviorists were unaware of this subtle alienation from the “normal” human society around us their own behavior was generating.

Punishments had an equally cold feeling, as if we left to float in a void in outer space. An internee who lost control of his emotions was taken and put into a closet beneath the stairs and left in the bare room with a single chair and a naked light bulb overhead until he had calmed down enough to be readmitted to human society. I still remember the threats others hurled from that space of containment, as well as sitting there myself staring at the unpainted runners ascending above me. Other times, I remember sitting in another room motionless and wondering how high I could count before I would be allowed to get up and move around again. All this had a quality of a theater of the absurd, because we were never taught, either by example or instruction, how to process our emotions and to develop an awareness of their root causes. Instead when we vented, we were punished with an emotional void.

According to Jerome S. Stumphauzer’s (1986) Helping Delinquents Change: A Treatment Manual of Social Learning Approaches, Learning House formulated their approach thus:

The self-control training of Learning House consisted of a series of
sessions which taught children (a) to increase commitment, (b) to
develop awareness of the stimuli and consequences of their behavior,
(c) to rearrange their particular environment (including their thoughts),
and (d) to evaluate self-standards and to reinforce themselves for their
own behavior change.
(p. 177)

The behaviorist agenda of training children to police their own psyches is made grimly evident by the following “outline of self-control training”:


1. Review reasons why self-control helpful
2. Positive incentives to encourage the application of self-control skills
3. Child perceiving himself as “the kind of person who can use self control” through teaching another child the skills he has learned
4. Review progress with peers and teaching parents during the family meeting
5. List positive consequences of self-control.


1. Recognize target behaviors through role-playing and video tape playback
2. Count target behaviors on wrist counter
3. Rate daily performance on target behaviors and compare with teaching parent’s rating
(Stumphauzer, 1986, p. 178)

The reality on the ground looked a whole lot different than in the professional publications, however. Instead of becoming the behaviorist monk they intended, according to my mother and sympathetic professional observers, my coping mechanism was to stiffen and attempt to suppress my self-expression, to the point where I was becoming robotically alienated from my own emotions. By the time the program deemed me ready to graduate, I had, unsurprisingly, lost track of my soul. This is illustrated by a bizarre incident my mother related to me that occurred at the very end of my stay.

While I had wanted very much to return home, Learning House developed an antagonistic relationship to my mother and was incapable of helping us explore the underlying dynamics of the family that had led to its breakup.

Instead, they tried to make her set recording devices about the house. I suppose they needed more material to help me raise my awareness. My mother, to her credit, declined. The upshot of this general atmosphere of neglect was at graduation from their program I was still taking out the anger of my emotional exile on my brother and sister. In short, I was an emotional time bomb. When I learned of my mother’s decision to not take me home, I systematically tore up the front lawn of Learning House with my bare hands, the counselors reported with bewilderment. Apparently, they were blind to the symbolic value of the act.

Rather than confront such resonant manifestations of internal agony therapeutically, Learning House chose to give me “learning experiences.”

Probably some of these worked out fine, but the strange emotional void that permeated our world like a drug even appeared there. One of the learning experiences I had to undergo was to repeatedly find my way on public transportation from Palo Alto to my mother’s home in Pleasant Hill each weekend, rather than be picked up by my stepfather. This was a long journey into an unknown world for a boy of nine. Without warnings of the dangers I was about to face, but intuiting them, I burst into tears as the smiling counselor dropped me off at the Greyhound station, only to be comforted by an old man who put his arm on my shoulder and helped me into the bus. The old man couldn’t be there to protect me all the time, however. The old Greyhound station in downtown San Francisco, in whose lobby I sat waiting many times, was a hang-out for drug dealers, pedophiles, con-artists, and unstable street people of all sorts, none of whom I’d ever had experience with before. I narrowly escaped having molestation, or worse, as one of my “learning experiences.”

In all honesty, I now ask myself, what sort of doltish psychological intelligence would actually toy with exacerbating the abandonment that I had already gone through by sending me, unprepared, into the streets like that? This blind minotaur in the center of the behaviorist maze may be best illustrated by an excerpt from my book, The Jaguar That Roams the Mind:

Asked if I would participate in a “study,” I went to the university campus and sat in a lab lit by fluorescent lights and faced a bearded, long-boned graduate student. Setting his contraption before me like an earnest Jesuit with a sacred machine, he handed me a remote control wrapped in black electrical tape. I studied it, and then the machine: A miniature stage covered with sharp, cold, metallic objects like barbed wire, tacks and Brillo pads.

“Press the button,” he said.

I did and the stage rotated to reveal an artfully arranged pile of sweets: cookies, chocolates, candies.

What the hell?

My job, I learned, was to simply sit before the device, concentrating my attention on the contents of the stage, and then after a few minutes I could press the button and concentrate on its opposite. So we began.

I pressed the button and stared. The young doctor observed. The fluorescents burned. The minutes stretched and wobbled. The cold pile ate its own tail and the warm pile drifted away and disintegrated into the air.

Finally, the young doctor broke the silence, saying, “That’s enough for now. Thank you for your participation, Robbie.” I relaxed.

Leaning back in his chair, he said in an off-hand way, “You can eat the cookies, if you want.”

All his careful thesis design, all the scrutinizing of the committee for research on human subjects, all of his professor’s advice, hung on that moment. Had I been deconditioned from my natural boyish appetite for cookies?

“No, thanks,” I said. But they forgot I was not a rat. Having passed through the world of internments, I refused gifts when I sensed the giver had something to gain from it. My conditioning was far deeper than he ever imagined (Tindall, 2008, pp. 29-30).

Like the bewildered Athenian youth released into the Cretan labyrinth, we children found an inhuman monster lurking at the institutional center of Stanford’s Skinnerian regime. It didn’t devour human flesh, however. It subtly consumed our humanity instead.

An article like this should appropriately end with a brief summary of subsequent events. After my release from Learning House, I attempted to integrate myself into the home of my father, where my life under the behaviorist regime was treated as an embarrassment. But the imprint of that experience proved tenacious: as I entered my teenage years, life rapidly drained of significance. Society appeared to function in mindless obedience to the dictates of a counterfeit central authority. True, of course, but there was no access to any meaningful reality beyond the lie. So it was the punishing void of Learning House took its toll. It was better to burn out in anger, alcohol, and drugs than live within such a system.

I ran away to grow up on the streets. For a number of years I played cat and mouse with the authorities and their factotums, the social workers and psychologists, drifting from placement to placement while caught in a web of substance abuse. Finally, burnt to the core, I sought out the family of an old friend and they took me in. I trace my trajectory back into an authentic belonging to society, which Learning House had done so much to rupture, there.

It was simply love and safety that I required to begin reknitting my psyche. Now as a writer and college professor, I work to convey deeper human values to those working to find their own way through the maze of false authority.


Tindall, R. (2008). The Jaguar that roams the mind. Rochester, VT: Park Street Press.

Stumphauzer, J. S. (1986). Helping delinquents change: A treatment manual of social learning approaches. New York, NY: Haworth Press.

theseus and minotaur