B. F. Skinner

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Burrhus Frederic Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist and author. He conducted pioneering work in experimental psychology and advocated behaviorism, which seeks to understand and control behavior as a function of environmental histories of reinforcement. Skinner also wrote a number of controversial works in which he proposed the widespread use of psychological behavior modification techniques, primarily using conditioning, in order to improve society and increase human happiness.


Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born in rural Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He attended Hamilton College in New York, with the intention of becoming a writer and received a B.A. in English literature in 1926.

After graduation, he spent a year in Greenwich Village attempting to become a writer of fiction, but he soon became disillusioned with his literary skills. He concluded that he had little world experience and no strong personal perspective from which to write. During this time, which Skinner later called "the dark year," he chanced upon a copy of Bertrand Russell's recently published book, An Outline of Philosophy, in which Russell discussed the behaviorist philosophy of psychologist John B. Watson. At the time, Skinner had begun to take more interest in the actions and behaviors of those around him, and some of his short stories had taken a "psychological" slant. He decided to abandon literature and seek admission as a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University (which at the time was not regarded as a leading institution in the field).

Skinner received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, and remained at that institution as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and later at Indiana University, before returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained there for the rest of his career. In addition to a prolific research record and his influence on a generation of neobehaviorists, Skinner popularized his behavioristic principles through novels and commentaries.

Skinner was granted numerous awards in his lifetime. In 1968, he received the National Medal of Science from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Three years later, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation, and in 1972, he was given the Humanist of the Year Award of the American Humanist Association. Just eight days before his death, he received the first Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association (APA).[1]

Throughout his life, Skinner would seldom attempt to conciliate directly with his critics. He readily argued with them, and sometimes got carried away with clever and acerbic wit, which he later regretted because he might have antagonized his colleagues. However, he also took pride in his forthrightness.

Skinner's last moments were described in a lovely tribute written by daughter Julie.[2] She wrote of their loving relationship. Admiring his sturdy work ethic, she tried to protect him from it in his last days. He refused final lifesaving efforts, but at the end, when his mouth was dry, Julie noted that "upon receiving a bit of water he said his last word: 'Marvelous.'" Skinner died on August 18, 1990 in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


The basis for B. F. Skinner's research is the study of "operant behavior." In contrast to "respondent behavior," where responses are elicited by specific stimuli, operant behavior is ongoing without any apparent stimulus. To generate operant behavior for investigation, Skinner devised an environmental chamber where birds could engage in pecking, or rats in bar pressing. In this manner, environmental control was easier to obtain and operant rates could be readily recorded.

According to Skinner's model, learning occurs when the ongoing operant comes under the control of reinforcement from the environment. At first, the operant may be shaped by the reinforcement of approximations to the desired operant character. When the refined operant is followed by presentation of the reinforcing event, the probability of the occurrence of the operant is increased. For example, if an operant is defined as bar pressing in a rat, presentation of food following a bar press increases the likelihood of more bar presses. Thus, Skinner's view of reinforcement is defined in terms of the probability of changes in the operant rate. It avoids inferences of a satisfier or annoyer, as in Edward L. Thorndike's law of effects, or of drive reduction, as in Clark L. Hull's theory.

Skinner demonstrated the power of reinforcement by showing that characteristic response rates are obtained for particular schedules of reinforcement delivery. Similarly, he translated conditioning processes such as "generalization" and "discrimination" to a reinforcement contingency framework. Moreover, he extended the principles of operant control to a consideration of verbal behavior. Skinner used his data to argue that behavior is controlled, and the critical role of the psychologist is to define the parameters of effective control for appropriate social implications.

Skinner's Neo-behaviorism

Skinner was mainly responsible for the development of the philosophy of radical behaviorism and for the further development of applied behavior analysis, a branch of psychology which aims to develop a unified framework for animal and human behavior based on principles of learning. He conducted research on shaping behavior through positive and negative reinforcement, and demonstrated operant conditioning, a behavior modification technique which he developed in contrast with Ivan Pavlov's classical conditioning.

Skinner did not advocate the use of punishment. His research suggested that punishment was an ineffective way of controlling behavior, leading generally to short-term behavior change, but resulting mostly in the subject attempting to avoid the punishing stimulus, instead of avoiding the behavior that was causing punishment. A simple example of this is the failure of prison to eliminate criminal behavior. If prison (as a punishing stimulus) were effective at altering behavior, there would be no criminality, since the risk of imprisonment for criminal conduct is well established. However, individuals still commit offenses, but attempt to avoid discovery, and therefore punishment. The punishing stimulus does not stop criminal behavior. The criminal simply becomes more adept at avoiding the punishment. Skinner argued that reinforcement, both positive and negative (the latter of which is often confused with punishment), proves to be more effective in bringing about lasting changes in behavior.

Superstition among pigeons

One of Skinner's experiments examined the formation of "superstition" in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.[3]

Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that the experiment shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.[3]

Later studies by other behavioral psychologists failed to replicate Skinner's results and disputed Skinner's "superstition" explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Instead, it appeared that the behavior of his pigeons could be accounted for by the natural foraging behaviors of the species he used as test subjects.

Social engineering

Skinner is popularly known for his controversial books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Walden Two describes a visit to an imaginary utopian commune in the United States in the 1940s. In this community, the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world, due to their practice of scientific social planning and the use of operant conditioning in the raising of children.

Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden, champions a lifestyle that does not support war or foster competition and social strife. It encourages a lifestyle of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness, satisfying work, and leisure.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity advanced the thesis that social concepts such as free will and human dignity (by which Skinner meant belief in individual autonomy) were obsolete, and stood in the way of greater human happiness and productivity. Skinner was opposed to inhumane treatment and bad government, but he argued that the champions of freedom went so far as to deny causality in human action so they could champion the "free person." In a sense, the champions of freedom were enemies of the scientific way of knowing. And, Skinner believed, this freedom they sought might well lead to their self-destruction. For Skinner, it was not freedom that lit the way to happiness, but rather science that held the keys to true human fulfillment.

Political views

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control—a behavioral technology—could solve human problems, which had not been solved by earlier approaches or were actively aggravated by advances in physical technology, such as the atomic bomb. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.

Skinner was sometimes accused of being a totalitarian by his critics. Intellectual opponents, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Ayn Rand, in their attempt to show Skinner wrong, equated his philosophic determinism with political oppression. Skinner has often been equated to political and social positions he never espoused and even explicitly objected to.

Skinner was a determinist, believing that all human behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the environment. He saw the problems of political control not as a battle of domination versus freedom, but as choices of what kinds of control were used for what purposes. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment, and fear, supporting the use of positive reinforcement or reward.

Skinner's book, Walden Two, presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. His utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical work. In it, he answers a problem that exists in many utopian novels: "What is the Good Life?" Skinner answers that it is a life of friendship, health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile contributions to one's society.

Additionally, Skinner believed that behavioral technology would offer alternatives to coercion, good science applied right would help society, and humanity would be better off under the banner of peaceful cooperation.


B. F. Skinner's view of behavior has drawn the often harsh criticism of many who are offended by his mechanical conception of human nature. Moreover, whether one considers Skinner's environmental determinacy or Pavlov's physiological reductionism, the net conceptualization of human activity precludes any attributes of personal freedom, self-determinacy, or the dynamics of consciousness. Skinner earned more scorn from critics because he articulated the social controls that are derived from the principles of operant behavior.

As are most people with grand ideas, strong convictions, and tenacious efforts to enlarge their influence, B. F. Skinner was constantly attacked by adversaries, criticizing his views and attempting to establish in every possible way that his ideas were fatally flawed. Although Sigmund Freud and Skinner were opposites on the importance of introspection, Skinner used to consider the two of them fundamental allies in propagandizing for the primacy of environmental influences on human behavior.


One often-repeated story claims that Skinner ventured into human experimentation by raising his daughter Deborah in a "Skinner box," which led to her life-long mental illness and a bitter resentment towards her father.

In fact, the "Heir Conditioner," a term for Skinner's baby crib, was heated, cooled, had filtered air, allowed plenty of space to walk around in, and was much like a miniature version of a modern home. It was designed to make the baby more confident, more comfortable, less sick, less prone to cry, and so on. Reportedly it had some success in these goals.[4]

In 2004, psychologist and author Lauren Slater published a book, Opening Skinner's Box, which mentioned claims that Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Skinner Buzan) unsuccessfully sued her father for abuse, and later committed suicide. In response, Buzan herself came forward to publicly denounce the story as nothing more than hearsay and presumably to vouch for her own continued existence. She blasted Lauren Slater's book for repeating this urban legend as being vicious and harmful. [5]

Legacy: Radical positivism

Skinner's positivism has consistently advocated a methodological emphasis and return to the study of behavior defined in terms of peripheral events. Skinner argued against speculating about central mediating agencies of behavior, whether cognitive or physiological. Rather, behavior for Skinner was completely subject to environmental determinacy. If the environment is controlled, behavior is controlled. For this reason, Skinner accepted the validity of exhaustive study of a single subject, because variability arises not from individual differences inherent in the organism but from differential environmental contingencies.

In the spirit of positivism, Skinner argued that the so-called humanistic characteristics of species, which presumably set Homo sapiens off from the rest of living evolutionary products, are in fact an illusion, created over history to give humans a sense of security. In fact, for Skinner, to be human meant to be in control, to understand and use environmental contingencies to self benefit.

A natural outgrowth of behaviorism is behavior therapy, a technique of altering an individual's maladaptive reactions to particular stimuli. It involves the most basic of methods to alter human behavior, such as reward and punishment, reinforcement, and even biofeedback, using conditioning techniques. The cultivation of life skills is often a central focus. While founded in behaviorism, such forms of behavior modification are used by psychotherapists, parents, and caretakers of the disabled, generally without any underlying behaviorist philosophy.

Skinner's work has also been applied to the field of education. He formulated principles of programmed learning, in which reinforcement of small, incremental steps with immediate reinforcement, or reward, for the correct responses would presumably lead to learning not only of sensori-motor responses but also of verbal responses and conceptual knowledge. In fact, his ideas have been successfully incorporated in "teaching machines" as well as computer assisted instruction.

Major works

  • The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, 1938. ISBN 1583900071
  • Walden Two, 1948. ISBN 002411510X
  • Science and Human Behavior, 1953. ISBN 0029290406
  • Schedules of Reinforcement, with C. B. Ferster, 1957. ISBN 0137923090
  • Verbal Behavior, 1957. ISBN 1583900217
  • The Analysis of Behavior: A Program for Self Instruction, with James G. Holland, 1961. ISBN 0070295654
  • The Technology of Teaching, 1968.
  • Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis, 1969. ISBN 1583900284
  • Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971. ISBN 0394425553
  • About Behaviorism, 1974. ISBN 0394492013
  • Particulars of My Life: Part One of an Autobiography, 1976. ISBN 0394400712
  • Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, 1978. ISBN 0137700571
  • The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part Two of an Autobiography, 1979. ISBN 0394505816
  • Notebooks, edited by Robert Epstein, 1980. ISBN 0136241069
  • Skinner for the Classroom, edited by R. Epstein, 1982. ISBN 0878222618
  • Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management, with M. E. Vaughan, 1983.
  • A Matter of Consequences: Part Three of an Autobiography, 1983. ISBN 0394532660
  • Upon Further Reflection, 1987. ISBN 0139389865
  • Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, 1989. ISBN 067520674X
  • Cumulative Record: A Selection of Papers, 1959, 1961, 1972 and 1999 as Cumulative Record: Definitive Edition. This book includes the authentic account of the much-misrepresented "Baby in a box" device. ISBN 0874119693


  1. Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology APA. Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  2. J. S. Vargas, "B. F. Skinner: The last few days." Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, (Winter, 1990): 409-410.
  3. 3.0 3.1 B. F. Skinner, "'Superstition' in the Pigeon," Journal of Experimental Psychology 38 (1947). Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  4. David Mikkelson, B.F. Skinner Raised His Daughter in a Skinner Box? Retrieved August 3, 2019.
  5. Deborah Skinner Buzan I was not a lab rat. The Guardian, March 12, 2004. Retrieved August 3, 2019.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Brennan, J.F. History and Systems of Psychology. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1982. ISBN 1316630994
  • Skinner B. F. Particulars of My Life. New York, NY: New York University Press, 1976. ISBN 0814778437
  • Slater, Lauren. Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments Of The 20th Century. Bill Daniels Co., 2004. ISBN 0747563179
  • Vargas, J. S. "B. F. Skinner: The last few days." Journal of Applied Behavioral Analysis, (Winter, 1990): 409-410.
  • Wiener, D. N. B. F. Skinner: Benign Anarchist. Boston:Allyn and Bacon, 1996. ISBN 0205173489

External links

All links retrieved August 26, 2023.


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