This is the 2007 version. Click here for the 2017 chapter 13 table of contents.

The "Broom Lady"

A famous study from 1965 symbolized the emergence of behavior therapy and increasing skepticism toward the medical model. The study took place in Saskatchewan Mental Hospital. Theodoro Ayllon and colleagues found a 54 year old female mental patient who was severely disabled. She spent most of the day standing in the ward doing nothing, but she loved cigarettes. Ayllon, Haughton, and Hughes (1965) were trained in operant conditioning and knew cigarettes would function as a powerful reinforcer. If so, cigarettes should raise the frequency or probability of a behavior they followed (see Chapter 5, Conditioning). Ayllon, Haughton, and Hughes picked an arbitrary behavior—holding a broom—and reinforced it. They gave the woman cigarettes whenever she held a broom. Soon she held a broom all the time.

How did Ayllon and colleagues get the "broom lady" to hold her broom?

Next Ayllon and colleagues invited two psychiatrists to observe the woman's behavior through a one-way mirror. Each tried to analyze or explain the patient's behavior.

Dr. X. described the patient as follows:

"The broom represents to this patient some essential perceptual element in her field of consciousness...rather analogous to the way small children or infants refuse to be parted from some favorite toy, piece of rag, etc."

Dr. Y made these comments about the same patient:

"Her constant and repetitive pacing, holding the broom in the manner she does, could be seen as a ritualistic procedure, a magical action....Her broom would be then: (1) a child that gives her love and she gives him in return her devotion, (2) a phallic symbol, (3) the sceptre of an omnipotent queen..." (Ayllon, Haughton, and Hughes, 1965)

Of course, this made the psychiatrists look ridiculous, and that was the point. Ayllon and colleagues knew the underlying reason the lady was carrying the broom. She had been reinforced with cigarettes. This demonstration, published in the mid-1960s, symbolized (depending on where people stood) the hostility of behavioral psychologists toward psychiatrists or the absurdity of old theories and the superiority of behavioral techniques for explaining and changing behavior.


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