Skip to main content

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (B. F.)


(b. Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, 20 March 1904; d. Cambridge, Massachusetts, 18 August 1990), psychology, radical behaviorism, reinforcement, behavior analysis.

Skinner, the most eminent psychologist of the twentieth century, founded a science of behavior and its philosophy. He criticized the construct of mind and offered naturalized accounts of cognition, and he invented and promoted applications that later led to better practices. Among his awards were the National Medal of Science and the first citation from the American Psychological Association for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution.

As Skinner assumed of others, so he assumed of himself: He was a locus for a confluence of variables. Some were encompassing (Western scientific traditions); others were part of his generation (a cultural background); still others he shared with a cohort (social circumstances); and some were unique to him (the individuating contingencies of his life). In the beginning, naturalized tendencies in philosophy and science were a basis for his contributions. As a youth, his familial, social, and cultural context differentially strengthened those influences, as did his life in college. In graduate school, though, the individuating contingencies became as critical as their context, yet the two pulled him in different directions: He sought to advance normal science in psychology, yet at the same time to revolutionize it. In the end, the contingencies were the figure and their context the ground for his contributions—a naturalized psychology. This distinguished his work from mainstream psychology, even as he remained within it, where he became an intellectual provocateur.

Naturalized psychology was not original in science, but Skinner uniquely and vigorously advanced it. In the 1930s he established a science of behavior: the experimental analysis of behavior. In the 1940s he formulated its philosophy: radical behaviorism. In the 1950s he provided behavioral interpretations of psychology’s key content domains and considered the ethical implications of determinism: naturalized ethics. In the 1960s he reflected on the social implications of his science, as he advocated its application: applied behavior analysis. In the 1970s he addressed the cultural implications of his science, which made him a public intellectual, as his work became the basis of a new system of psychology: behavior analysis. In the 1980s he promoted the system, admonished psychology for not having adopted it, and reproached his culture for not applying it more widely. In psychology, his contributions were profound and disturbing. In the United States, they were controversial and unsettling. The modern history of psychology, in part, reveals why.

Historical Context Modern psychology was rooted in René Descartes’s dualism of mind and body, the former incorporal, the latter corporal. Philosophers afterward sought rational accounts of the mind, while scientists sought empirical accounts of biology. In the 1800s some of the accounts merged into German experimental psychology: the introspective analysis of mental structures and objective inferences about mental processes. In the United States this became psychology’s first system, structuralism, one of two systems that were in place when Skinner was born.

Evolutionary biology led to comparative psychology and the psychology of adaptation. The former inquired into the phylogenetic basis of mind and behavior, the latter into the ontogenetic basis of psychological processes. Edward Thorndike’s studies of cats learning to escape from boxes exemplified both. He discovered that their latencies decreased over trials, which he explained in terms of the law of effect—the satisfactions produced by escape. This was the first quantitative account of instrumental or voluntary behavior, which would be the primary content of Skinner’s science. Thorndike’s explanation, though, was not Skinner's. For Skinner, satisfactions were explanatory constructs or the consequences of escape, not its cause. From the foregoing psychologies emerged the field’s second system, functionalism, which was concerned with the use of mind and behavior, not their structure. In Skinner’s youth, functionalists struggled over whether their subject matter was mind, behavior, or both. For Skinner, it was behavior—public and private behavior.

The first systematic research on basic behavioral processes lay in early-twentieth-century experimental physiology: Russian reflexology and general physiology. The former dismissed mind and introspection as unscientific. Psychology was objective; the brain was its subject matter; its actions were reflexive or involuntary. Ivan Pavlov experimentally analyzed reflexive behavior and the conditioning of its eliciting stimuli (e.g., tones paired with food elicit salivation in dogs), which he explained neurologically. Founded by Jacques Loeb, general physiology studied the directed behavior of organisms as a whole, mainly tropisms, not isolated reflexes. Reflexes and tropisms were among the secondary content of Skinner’s science. However, he did not explain them neurologically: Behavior was a subject matter in its own right, with its own laws. Skinner did, though, emulate Pavlov’s methods: By carefully controlling his experimental conditions, he pioneered in revealing the lawfulness of instrumental behavior.

Given these antecedents, psychology’s third system, behaviorism, was almost inevitable. Its classical form was founded by John Watson in 1913: Psychology’s subject matter was behavior, not mind; its methods were objective, not introspective; its basic processes were associations among stimuli and responses, not associations in the mind; its goal was the prediction and control of behavior, not a theory of mind; and mind was either a fiction or an incorporal entity unsuited to science. By the time Skinner entered graduate school, classical behaviorism was faltering, in part, because it could not account for variability in behavior with mere stimulus-response associations. From this arose two forms of neobehaviorism.

The first was learning theory, which dominated psychology for the next forty years. Initially, it was consistent with a new philosophy of science, logical positivism, which operationally and exhaustively defined its concepts as observable relations. Learning, for example, was defined as reductions in the time that it took rats to run a maze. Reductions in run-time were instances of learning. Unexplained variability, though, remained a problem. It might have been solved with better experimental control, but instead was resolved through logical empiricism: Explanatory constructs explained within- and between-organism variations in behavior. The constructs were also operationally defined, yet had surplus meaning. On this account, reductions in run-time were an index of learning, not just instances of it. This was methodological behaviorism: It studied behavior, but behavior was no longer its subject matter. Its subject matter was hypothetical organismic mediators between stimuli and responses (e.g., drives, cognitive maps). The second form of neobehaviorism was Skinner's. It accounted for variations in behavior with variations in biological and behavioral contingencies and context.

In 1904, when Skinner was born, the United States was struggling with internal tensions between a rural, agricultural, and religious culture and an urban, industrial, and scientific society. At the turn of the century, social progressivism sought to resolve these tensions through professionalization and self-improvement, often through science. In the 1920s modernism came to characterize American intellectual life, promoting progress through science and technology. Of the sciences, psychology held great promise because the tensions concerned mental and behavioral adaptation. Skinner was socially progressive and modernist, and he became a psychologist.

Family, Social, and Cultural Context Burrhus Frederic Skinner—Fred to his family and friends—was born to Grace Burrhus and William A. Skinner on 20 March 1904 in Susquehanna, a small railroad town in northeast Pennsylvania. His sole sibling, Edward (Ebbe), was born in 1906. Skinner’s parents embodied the progressive ideal, striving toward middle-class respectability and self-improvement. His father was a self-made lawyer who sought to instill in Skinner the Protestant ethic, civic boosterism, and Kiwanis fraternity. His mother was from a social class above his father’s and sought to instill a concern for social propriety. Overall, though, his home was warm and stable, and he was a dutiful son, even as he grew critical of his parents’ values and began to challenge authority.

Skinner’s childhood was distinguished in ways reflected in his contributions. He had a strong penchant for exploring, inventing, and experimenting, and he was a keen observer of behavior and biology. Mary Graves, a beloved teacher, broadened his intellectual and cultural horizons, leading him to engage in art and literature. He also played the piano for most of his life. While reading Shakespeare in eighth-grade English, he came upon the theory that the seventeenth-century British philosopher, Francis Bacon, was Shakespeare. He challenged Graves on this point, but she chided him and so he read Bacon, whose natural philosophy would characterize Skinner’s approach to the history of science, which lay in artisanry and craft, not disembodied ideas; it also reflected his approach to science, in which he emphasized experimentation, not contemplation, and regarding theory, which for Skinner was empirically induced, not accepted a priori. He also lost his belief in God.

In the fall of 1922 Skinner entered Hamilton College (in Clinton, New York) with an emerging intellectual independence and socially progressive, modernist aspirations. The transition, though, was not seamless. He was self-conscious of his social background, disappointed by his peers’ lack of intellectual interest, disdainful of extracurricular requirements such as physical education and chapel, and unlucky in love. At home over Easter, he watched Ebbe die unexpectedly. Eventually, Skinner found his way in college through supportive faculty members, notably the chemist Percy Saunders, and friends, among them John Hutchens, later a New York Times editor. Emboldened, he rebelled against convention in campus publications and opposed authority with pranks. He graduated with a major in English, but took only one course related to his science of behavior, a biology course in which he read Loeb.

Skinner had been writing since grade school, was published in his youth, and, with personal encouragement in college from the poet Robert Frost, decided to become a writer. For his parents, this was not the most respectable choice, but they agreed to support him at home for a year. It was, however, a dark year. Although Skinner honed an objective style of writing, he failed to make a difference in the progressive, modernist United States. He wrote: “A writer might portray human behavior accurately, but he did not therefore understand it. I was to remain interested in human behavior, but the literary method failed me; I would turn to the scientific” (1967, p. 395). Becoming a skilled writer, of course, helped Skinner advance his work.

As Skinner was writing, he was also reading. Sinclair Lewis was extolling a career in the biological sciences over that in conventional medicine. Bertrand Russell was praising the epistemological implications of Watson’s Behaviorism. When Skinner sought advice about psychology and higher education from his Hamilton professors, they directed him to Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes and Harvard University. Deciding on graduate school at Harvard brought him and his parents relief: his career would be useful and respectable. His choice was affirmed as he continued to read. H. G. Wells was promoting Pavlov’s science over the humanities for understanding human behavior, and Russell was offering behavioral accounts of mental terms. Before meeting his parents in Europe for summer travel in 1928, Skinner moved to Greenwich Village, in New York City, where he adopted a bohemian lifestyle, worked in a bookstore, and read Conditioned Reflexes and Watson’s Psychological Care of Infant and Child. Watson promoted behaviorism in ways that appealed to Skinner’s emerging iconoclasm.

Early Studies of Behavior When Skinner arrived at Harvard, the Psychology Department was more allied with structuralism than behaviorism, so he supplemented its curriculum with readings and courses in physiology and found support from William Crozier, a devotee of Loeb and chair of the Department of General Physiology. With encouragement from his friend and colleague Fred Keller, Skinner undertook research to demonstrate the lawfulness of behavior on which the environment acted, mainly locomotion. Through trial and error and some serendipity, he devised measures (e.g., cumulative records), invented apparatus (e.g., the Skinner box), and demonstrated lawfulness in behavior that operated on the environment and was strengthened by its consequences in a process that Skinner called reinforcement. He was also influenced by reading the philosopher-physicists Henri Poincaré, Percy Bridgman, and especially Ernst Mach, for whom the meaning of concepts lay in their history, causation was a functional relation between dependent and independent variables, and science was the behavior of scientists maintained by its consequences. The last was a form of Charles Peirce’s pragmatism, whose work Skinner read, but rarely acknowledged, although their theories of truth were allied.

Skinner received his doctorate in 1931 for a dissertation titled “The Concept of the Reflex in the Description of Behavior.” In it, he argued from history that behavior was no more and no less than an unmediated functional relation between a stimulus and a response. He then demonstrated quantitative order in the rates at which rats pressed panels that gave them access to food (behavioral contingencies) during the course of food satiation (their context).

He remained at Harvard until 1936, notably as a junior fellow in Harvard’s Society of Fellows, where he became friends with the philosopher Willard van Orman Quine, whose naturalistic epistemology complemented his own. With continued support from Crozier, he addressed the effects of context on behavior: conditioning (i.e., behavioral history), drive (e.g., food deprivation), emotion (e.g., by eliciting stimuli), and biology (e.g., the nervous system). Eventually, though, he turned to contingencies, where he distinguished between reflexive and instrumental behavior or what he called respondent and operant behavior and made a science of the latter. In thereafter investigating only operant contingencies, though, he was criticized for ignoring their context—history,

motivation, emotion, and biology. He did not ignore them, however; he controlled for them.

In 1928 Skinner wrote to Saunders that his interests lay in psychology, adding in mild conceit: “even, if necessary, by making over the entire field to suit myself” (1979, p. 38). He never made the field over, but by the late-1930s he had established a new professional persona, no longer as Fred, but as “B. F.” Skinner; and a new style of psychological science. In the latter, knowledge was based on experimental control, not contemplation. Experimental control was established through the discovery and demonstration of functional relations, not correlations. The discovery and demonstration of those relations were the process and product of within-individual experimental control, not statistical control of between-group differences. Irreducible functional relations were basic behavioral processes. Theory was their integration. Although these characteristics were not exceptional in natural science, Skinner uniquely extended them to the behavioral, social, and cognitive sciences.

With this style, Skinner founded a psychological science whose basic processes were, like Pavlov's, universal; they transcended individuals and cultures (e.g., reinforcement). Their products, though, were situated, that is, dependent on time and place, and thereby the province of natural history (e.g., reinforcers). Except in later simulation research, Skinner never systematically analyzed behavior’s natural history, but instead offered interpretations of it based on and constrained by the basic processes. Where experimental control is not possible in science, for instance, in explaining plate tectonics and tidal forces, interpretation is a common form of explanation. Skinner’s most famous and infamous interpretation was of verbal behavior, which he began in 1934 on a challenge from the British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. Within a year, he offered his first interpretation—“Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?”—arguing that her secret was automatic writing. Appearing in the Atlantic Monthly, this was the first of his popular press publications. They made him a visible scientist.

In 1936 Skinner moved to the University of Minnesota as an instructor of psychology and married Yvonne (Eve) Blue, who had majored in English at the University of Chicago. A year later, he was promoted to assistant professor and, in two more years, to associate professor. In 1938 his first daughter, Julie, was born, and he published his seminal text, The Behavior of Organisms. The text integrated the style and content of his science, reported new findings (e.g., stimulus generalization, response differentiation, periodic reconditioning), and formalized a generic unit of analysis: a “three-term contingency” comprised of operant behavior, its reinforcing consequences, and antecedent discriminative stimuli that set the occasion for previously reinforced responding. Because the unit was generic, it elided the multiple controls and multiple effects of its constituents, and thus had the appearance of being impoverished, even as it encompassed deeper complexities, as all generic units do in science. For his research Skinner was awarded the Howard Crosby Warren Medal in 1942 by the Society of Experimental Psychologists.

War Years Skinner then began to extending his science. With William Heron, he conducted arguably the first research in behavioral pharmacology. With William Estes, he simulated anxiety through the suppression of responding by pre-aversive stimuli in an experimental preparation that became a means for assessing the effects of pharmaceuticals on emotion. As for verbal behavior, he taught courses on the psychology of literature and language and, in 1942, received a Guggenheim Fellowship to work on what would become his book, Verbal Behavior. However, he delayed the fellowship until after World War II, during which time he pursued his first sustained program of applied research. This was “Project Pigeon,” in which he trained pigeons to peck images on screens that then guided simulated missiles to precise destinations. Although he never overcame the military’s objections to engineering through behavior, Skinner did discover how to shape new behavior through differential reinforcement. This led to Marian and Keller Breland’s Animal Behavior Enterprises (1943–1990), training programs for the chimpanzees on the unmanned Project Mercury space flights (1959–1961), as well as behaviorally based robotics at the turn of the millennium.

Skinner’s next invention was social—an “air crib”— which he built for Eve as a convenience in caring for their second daughter, Deborah (b. 1944). As described in the Ladies’ Home Journal, the crib was a raised, enclosed, sound-attenuated mobile space with a full front window and shade, air filters, controls for heat and humidity, and a role of sheets for the bedding. Its purpose was to aid maternal care and ensure infant comfort and health. The article’s title, however—“Baby in a Box”—led to speculation that Skinner was conducting research with Deborah, which led to later rumors that she had become psychotic. In fact, Skinner manipulated nothing more than the crib’s heat and humidity to keep Deborah comfortable. He did attempt to market the cribs, but business was not his forte. Still, many parents built cribs of their own, based on his design.

As for Deborah, she married Barry Buzan, an economist at the University of London, in 1973, and became a restaurant and hotel reviewer in England and an accomplished artist. Julie married Ernest Vargas, a sociologist, in 1962; they were the parents of Skinner’s two granddaughters, Lisa (b. 1966) and Justine (b. 1970). With a doctorate in educational research from the University of Pittsburgh, Julie applied her father’s science to education as a professor at West Virginia University. After she retired in 2003, she and Ernest promoted Skinner’s work through the B. F. Skinner Foundation (est. 1987). Skinner was remembered as an adoring father and grandfather.

As World War II drew to a close, Skinner began reflecting on his dissatisfactions with social conventions and developed an interest in cultural design. The result was his utopian novel, Walden Two, which described a community that used his science to improve its practices, for instance, in childrearing, education, and labor. Misunderstood as a blueprint for intentional communities, the book appalled critics who aligned it with fascist regimes. Skinner, however, proposed no blueprint, but rather suggested that communities take an experimental approach to discovering practices that worked. Experimentation was constant; practices were contingent. Although WaldenTwo was not influential until later, in it, Skinner articulated a key implication of his science: “The organism is always right” in the sense that its behavior was lawful. Individuals were not autonomous agents, even when conscious of their behavior. Consciousness was also behavior. However, Skinner was not suggesting that “anything goes.” Cultures have an interest in controlling behavior in the short term to serve social justice and in the long term to assure cultural survival. Skinner’s stance, nonetheless, disconcerted those who believed in free will and moral culpability. They charged him with scientism, even as “the organism is always right” was rife with moral values.

Rethinking Operationalism Skinner took a philosophical turn in his 1945 article “The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms,” where he critiqued two conventional forms of operationalism and offered one of his own. He argued against the operationalism in logical positivism. It led to descriptive concepts so narrowly defined that they belied the richness of psychology’s subject matter, for instance, that intelligence quotients defined intelligence. He also inveighed against the operationalism in logical empiricism. It promoted explanatory constructs that were reified descriptions of behavior or mental fictions, for instance, that intelligence quotients were an index of some thing called intelligence. In their place, he proposed that psychological terms be operationalized as behavioral relations that were discriminative for using those terms. For instance, giving correct answers to difficult questions is an occasion for calling someone “intelligent.” Intelligence is an attribute of behavior, not an entity behind it.

Skinner also extended his analysis to private events, that is, to stimuli and responses within the organism, because they, too, are discriminative for psychological terms. Like the terms for public events, terms for private events are acquired socially, but less reliably, for lack of common public referents. They have to be acquired, for instance, on the basis of public accompaniments of private events (e.g., on seeing their children succeed in the face of adversity, parents ask, “don't you feel proud?”) or on the basis of collateral public behavior (e.g., on hearing students give answers to arithmetic problems solved in their heads, teachers say “good thinking”). This led Skinner to call his philosophy of science “radical behaviorism.” By radical, though, he did not mean extreme, but instead, thoroughgoing, in the sense that behavior was the basis for everything psychological. This was akin to Gilbert Ryle’s concept of mind and Ludwig Wittgenstein’s ordinary-language conception of mental terms.

Also in 1945, Skinner moved to Indiana University as a full professor and chairperson of the Department of Psychology. He continued his program of research, for instance, on the differential reinforcement of response rates and conditional discriminative stimuli, and moved to clarify the meaning of “control” in his work. Control— experimental control—was the goal of research. The goal of science, in contrast, was understanding, by which he meant an empirically derived theory. In science, control was a means for deriving a theory and then for testing it, but not an end in itself. By 1947, Skinner’s students and colleagues were establishing their own programs of experimental research, notably, Nat Schoenfeld and Keller at Columbia University, and organizing conferences to present their finding. Also that year, Skinner accepted an invitation from Harvard’s Department of Psychology to deliver its William James Lectures, which he titled “Verbal Behavior: A Psychological Analysis.” Afterward, he was invited to join the department and again he accepted.

Harvard University Back at Harvard, Skinner reached the high point of his career. He established a long-standing pigeon laboratory and analyzed how scheduling reinforcers according to, for instance, the number of responses, time, and their interrelations, alone and in sequence, signaled and unsignaled, produced distinctive and reliable patterns of responding. This work resulted in his book with Charles Ferster, Schedules of Reinforcement(1957). In addition, Skinner played a significant role in founding behavioral pharmacology, as well as the field of human operant behavior. In the latter, he and Ogden Lindsley replicated the style and content of his science with psychiatric patients. In the 1950s, he also conducted simulation research on superstition and, in the 1960s, on cooperation, competition, and aggression. Overall, several generations of experimental psychologists were trained in his Harvard laboratory, contributing fundamental knowledge on myriad topics, among them, conditioned reinforcement, stimulus control, escape and avoidance, punishment, and concurrent schedules of reinforcement, the last for studying choice as behavior.

By the late 1940s, psychology was fully engaged in testing theories of explanatory constructs, which Skinner criticized in a 1950 article, “Are Theories of Learning Necessary?” He argued that the theories of mediating structures and processes (e.g., learning) were too underdetermined to be confirmed in a hypothetical-deductive manner. For this, he was called anti-theory, but he was criticizing theories of mind, not of behavior. He was not, however, criticizing cognition, emotion, and personality as descriptive concepts. Captured in analogies such as “the climate is to the weather as personality is to behavior,” personality was not a psychological structure that mediated between behavior and the environment, but a situated product of behavior’s natural history, constrained by biology. It was one of psychology’s content domains.

In 1953 Skinner published Science and Human Behavior, which integrated his science and philosophy into a system. Reviewed by biologists, philosophers, psychologists, and sociologists, and assigned as an introductory textbook, it reached a wide audience. It was also replete with interpretations of everyday behavior—individual (e.g., emotion, self-control, thinking), social (e.g., personal and group control), and cultural (e.g., education, psychotherapy)—and with descriptions of how his science could be applied to them. This made the book foundational for applied behavior analysis a decade later.

According to Skinner, his most important book was Verbal Behavior. Published in 1957, it offered an interpretation of why people say what they say, not how they say it, that is, of the function of verbal behavior, not its structure. The latter is an orthogonal province of knowledge, not an incompatible one (viz. physiology and anatomy). The book was controversial, though: Many of Skinner’s colleagues set it aside as pure theory, embarrassed by its lack of data. The psycholinguist Noam Chomsky notably criticized it for not being a mediational neurological-genetic theory, setting the grounds for a longstanding debate. Although the book had little immediate impact, Skinner continued to develop his interpretation, addressing the evolutionary basis of verbal behavior, and then consciousness, generativity, and listener behavior (e.g., rule-governed behavior). By 1982 enough research was being conducted to support a modest journal, The Analysis of Verbal Behavior.

In the late 1950s Skinner’s contributions became the basis of several institutional developments and further awards. In 1958 the first journal for his science was founded: the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. This led to better-informed reviews and a more knowledgeable readership, but at the cost of isolation. Also, he was elected that year to the National Academy of Sciences, was given the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions, and was named the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard. In 1964 his colleagues founded APA Division 25 for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (later, Behavior Analysis), but its modest membership limited its influence. In 1968 he received the National Medal of Science.

Applications of Behaviorism Although Skinner urged that his science be applied to human behavior, he himself undertook only one direct application. Its impetus was a 1953 visit to Deborah’s classroom, where he found the teacher ignoring the basic behavioral processes (e.g., immediate reinforcement). Within a year, he invented teaching machines and programmed instruction; demonstrated their effectiveness and efficiency; and published the first of more than twenty-five related works. The Soviet Union’s launch of Sputnik I in 1957 abetted these developments: Professional societies were formed; conferences were held; journals were founded; and research was funded.

Skinner also tried to market his inventions, but by the time he published his text, The Technology of Teaching, in 1968, the teaching machine movement was languishing. Poor programs had flooded the market, tainting the technology, and, in Skinner’s view, educators were more inclined to select students who learned and grade them on a curve than to use evidence-based practices to assure that all students achieved mastery. His relationship with educators was not harmonious. His technology survived mainly where teaching had to be effective: in industry, the armed forces, and, in particular, special education, where his work led to a 1971 award from the Joseph P. Kennedy Foundation for Mental Retardation and a 1978 award from the National Association for Retarded Persons. By the end of the millennium, higher education’s embrace of the scholarship of teaching brought renewed interest in evidence-based practices, making Skinner’s technology again relevant (e.g., Keller’s personalized system of instruction), but by then his name was rarely associated with it.

The influence of Science and Human Behavior and the effectiveness of teaching machines notwithstanding, or perhaps because of them, Americans were growing wary of the unintended effects of behavioral technology and the intended effects of social control. These dangers made the ethical implications of Skinner’s science salient, leading him to address them. In a 1955–1956 article, “Freedom and the Control of Men,” he pointed out that control is assumed in science; it was determinism. Basic science discovers control; applied science uses it. The danger lies in failing to discover or modify the extant control to improve the human condition. Skinner also argued that aversive control—what is usually meant by “control”—be replaced with positive reinforcement. The latter worked better in the long run, did not have negative side effects, and yielded feelings of freedom and dignity. In a debate, the client-centered psychotherapist Carl Rogers argued that values and free choice were the basis of behavior. Skinner countered: Values were not the basis of behavior, they specified reinforcers; and choice was not free, it was lawful. Later he addressed the naturalistic fallacy, that is, the fallacy that individuals can derive values about how the world ought to be from how it is. In his view, a science of human behavior could address “ought” statements: They are verbal behavior about values; values concern short-term and long-term positive and negative reinforcers; and reinforcers are the consequences of action. Skinner’s science was a science of action, reinforcers, and verbal behavior. It offered an empirical basis for determining what

practices might (not must) produce valued consequences for individuals and the culture at large. Skinner’s naturalized ethics, though, was never fully developed.

In the 1960s the ethical implications of Skinner’s contributions expanded into social implications, especially as Walden Two became the basis for intentional communities (e.g., Twin Oaks in1967; Los Horcones in 1973). For this, Skinner turned to topics in the design of intentional communities, especially their controls and counter-controls. By the 1970s the social implications expanded into cultural implications, which Skinner addressed in a 1964–1974 Career Award from the National Institute of Mental Health for “A Behavioral Analysis of Cultural Practices.” The result was his book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity(1971), in which he argued that Western culture must move beyond these concepts. They were not the basis of behavior, but attributes of behavior that needed explaining. Moreover, cultures that supported a science of human behavior were the ones most likely to survive. The book was unsettling in the American culture, but it made Skinner a public intellectual or, to his detractors, an anti-intellectual. Given his overarching concern for humanity, though, the American Humanist Society gave him its 1972 Humanist of the Year Award to underscore this shared goals, albeit amid controversy over differences in their philosophies. By then, Skinner was no less inclined to enjoin controversy, nor would he be in the future, but his youthful conceit, while always cleverly engaged, was giving way to a more colleagial and congeneal style, for which he was remembered.

By the late 1950s a new generation of Skinner’s colleagues and students began applying his science to human behavior and, in 1968, founded what became its leading journal, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. At the turn of the millennium, it was one of more than twenty related journals. Indeed, by then, more applied and intervention research was being published than basic research, and applied behavior analysis becoming a profession.

Retirement Skinner retired from Harvard as a professor emeritus in 1974, the same year he published About Behaviorism, a summary and defense of his science and system. Afterward, he remained engaged as a scholar and intellectual, publishing more than one hundred additional works. His contributions also became the basis of new journals: Behaviorism in 1972 (later, Behavior and Philosophy), The Behavior Analyst in 1978, and Social Action and Behavior in 1982 (later, Behavior and Social Issues). The Behavior Analyst was the house journal of the Association for Behavior Analysis (ABA). Founded in 1974, ABA defined an independent system of psychology or, possibly, a separate discipline. In the first decade of new millennium, its membership had grown to more than 5,000, in addition to 6,000 members in thirty U.S. affiliated chapters and 7,000 in thirty chapters abroad. ABA was international. Other organizations followed, among them the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies in 1981.

After a hiatus of several decades, Skinner returned briefly to research, conducting simulation research with Robert Epstein on problem solving, remembering, and self-awareness. He also extended his science to self-management, of which he had always been a master, publishing Enjoy Old Age, with Margaret Vaughan in 1983. He engaged ethics again: the ethics of helping people, when help fostered dependence, not independence, and the ethics of aversive control, whose utility he acknowledged in special cases, but whose use was often flawed. The topics he addressed most systematically, though, were biological and cognitive psychology. They were eclipsing his science and system.

Skinner had begun integrating biology into his system in the 1960s, in particular, evolutionary biology. Natural selection and reinforcement shared a mode of causation—selection by consequences. In retirement, though, he had to defend his science against charges of environmentalism. It was environmentalistic in the sense of being a science of behavior-environment relations, in which biology was controlled for. Otherwise, Skinner took the middle ground on nature and nurture, but in doing so, he retained the problematic dichotomy between them, as did mainstream psychology. Earlier attempts notwithstanding, the dichotomy was not systematically challenged until the end of the millennium by developmental systems theory, at that time itself a minority view.

As for reductionism, Skinner held two complementary positions. First, he rejected explanatory reductionism: In a natural science, behavioral processes were not reducible to biological processes. In fact, biology should first look to behavior for what it has to explain. Second, he accepted constituative reductionism: In a natural history of behavior, biology is an independent variable. Skinner’s views were largely consistent with behavioral neuroscience, but opposed to cognitive neuroscience, which he considered a reductive program that sought to escape literal dualism by instantiating the mind as brain.

By the time Skinner retired, a putative cognitive revolution was in full force. In his view, though, the revolution only changed the field’s surface structure, not its deep structure. It changed psychology’s terminology from stimulus-and-response to input-and-output, but left psychology’s explanatory practices unaltered. Cognitivism was but another instantiation of mediational behaviorism, now couched in a computational metaphor. In a constructive mode, though, he described how behavior analysis could rescue psychology: The origins of cognitive terms lay in behavior, and their operational analysis showed how cognition could be explained by biological and behavioral contingencies and context. Cognition was an explanandum, not an explanans. Skinner was not alone in these views, but the other like-minded programs in psychology rarely saw or they denied any affinity; moreover, they too were minority programs unable to wield much authority (e.g., ecological approaches to perception and memory). As the new millennium dawned, the APA still described psychology as the science of mind and behavior—not the science of mind as behavior.

Skinner died of leukemia on 18 August 1990, at the age of eighty-six, the day after he completed the manuscript version of an invited APA address he had delivered nine days earlier, “Can Psychology Be a Science of Mind?” This was the occasion of the APA’s first award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution. His answer to the rhetorical question was of course no, but he was optimistic, in principle, about psychology’s naturalization. In practice, though, he worried. He worried about the fate of the Earth, especially of humanity, expressing concerns about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world. The solutions he proffered lay in a science of human behavior, but the science may have evolved too late in history to ensure a human and humane future. If, however, as Skinner avowed, cultures were experiments in nature, then he might have viewed the increased internationalization of his science and system with some hope for the future.


The Harvard University archives is the main repository of Skinner’s unpublished works and correspondence. Still others are housed at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, under the oversight of the B. F. Skinner foundation ( The foundation also maintains an updated, on-line bibliography of Skinner’s published works.


“Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” Atlantic Monthly153 (January 1934): 50–57. His first popular press article and the one that made him a visible scientist.

The Behavior of Organisms. New York: Appleton-Century, 1938. The seminal presentation of his science.

“Baby in a Box.” Ladies’ Home Journal62 (October 1945): 30–31, 135–136, 138. His first popular press article to spawn an urban legend.

“The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms.” Psychological Review 52 (1945): 270–277, 291–294. His differentiation of radical behaviorism from other behaviorisms.

Walden Two. New York: Macmillan, 1948. His break with social convention in utopian genre.

“Are Theories of Learning Necessary?” Psychological Review 57 (1950): 193–216. The cause of his being called “anti-theory,” when he was only questioning hypothetical constructs.

Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan, 1953. His first systematic text.

“Freedom and the Control of Men.” The American Scholar 25 (1955–1956): 47–65. A well-written essay and thoughtful grappling with issues.

“A Case History in Scientific Method.” American Psychologist11 (1956): 221–233. A retrospective and bemused look at how his science started.

With Charles B. Ferster. Schedules of Reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957. His last great contribution to his science.

Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957. What he said was his most important work, which would be his most controversial book in psychology.

“B. F. Skinner.” In A History of Psychology in Autobiography, edited by Edwin. G. Boring and Gardner Lindzey. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967. His first autobiography.

The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968. An overview of his major applied endeavor.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971. The far-ranging implications of his science for the human condition.

About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf, 1974. The last statement and defense of his science and system.

Particulars of My Life. New York: Knopf, 1976. The first of three autobiographical volumes.

The Shaping of a Behaviorist. New York: Knopf, 1979.

A Matter of Consequences. New York: Knopf, 1983.

With Margaret E. Vaughan. Enjoy Old Age. New York: Norton, 1983. Skinner’s self-management at its best.

“Can Psychology Be a Science of the Mind?” American Psychologist 45 (1990): 1206–1210.

Cumulative Record. Cambridge, MA: B. F. Skinner Foundation, 1999. A collection of his important publications.


Andresen, J. T. “Skinner and Chomsky: 30 Years Later. Historiographica Linquisitica 17 (1990): 145–165. Places Chomsky’s and Skinner’s work in historical and contemporary context.

Bjork, Daniel. W. B. F. Skinner: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1993. An accurate and accessible biography.

Boakes, Robert. From Darwin to Behaviourism: Psychology and the Minds of Animals. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. Describes the origins of a science of behavior.

Maccorquodale, K. “On Chomsky’s Review of Skinner’s Verbal Behavior.” Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 13 (1970): 83–99. The most detailed response to Chomsky’s review of Verbal Behavior.

Morris, Edward K., and James T. Todd, eds. Modern Perspectives on B. F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1985. Studies of Skinner’s science and system.

O’Donnell, John. M. The Origins of Behaviorism: American Psychology, 1870–1920. New York: New York University Press, 1985. Places behaviorism in social and cultural context—progressivism and modernism.

Pavlov, Ivan P. Conditioned Reflexes. London: Oxford University Press, 1927. The science of involuntary behavior on which Skinner modeled his science of voluntary behavior.

———. “B. F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior in American Life: From Consumer Culture to Counterculture.” Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 39 (2003): 1–23.

Rutherford, Alexandra. “A ‘Visible Scientist’: B. F. Skinner Writes for the Popular Press.” European Journal of Behavior Analysis 5 (2004): 109–129.

Smith, Laurence D. Behaviorism and Logical Positivism: A Reassessment of the Alliance. Stanford, CA: University of California Press, 1986. A definitive treatment of Skinner’s science of science.

———, and William R. Woodward, eds. B. F. Skinner and Behaviorism in American Culture. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press, 1996. Studies of Skinner and his science in context.

Smith, Nathaniel G., and Edward. K. Morris. “A Tribute to B. F. Skinner at 100: A Review and Chronology of His Awards and Honors.” European Journal of Behavior Analysis5 (2004): 121–128.

Todd, James T., and Edward K. Morris. “Case Studies in the Great Power of Steady Misrepresentation.” American Psychologist 47 (1992): 1441–1453. Review and analysis of the misrepresentations of Skinner’s work, published in a special issue in honor of Skinner.

Watson, John B. Behaviorism. New York: Norton, 1925. The first behaviorist’s last statement of behaviorism.

Zuriff, Gerald E. Behaviorism: A Conceptual Reconstruction. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985. A systematic review of the bases of the behaviorisms.

Edward K. Morris

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (B. F.)." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (B. F.)." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . (April 23, 2017).

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (B. F.)." Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Skinner, B. F.

Skinner, B. F. 1904-1990





B. F. Skinner, an American psychologist, provided the experimental foundations of contemporary behavior analysis and its applications. He introduced the terminology of operant behavior and elaborated on the concept of reinforcement. He interpreted verbal behavior in terms of those foundations and was outspoken about the differences between the methods of behavior analysis and those of cognitive psychology. His contributions provided the foundations for extensions to a variety of applications both within and outside of psychology (e.g., education, psychopharmacology, behavioral economics).

Born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (later known mostly as B. F.) grew up while the inventions of Thomas Edison and others were changing life in small-town America. From an early age, Skinner was a tinkerer, building gadgets and devices. At Hamilton College, he majored in English, also taking courses in science and philosophy. He sent some short stories to Robert Frost after graduation. Frosts reply encouraged him to take a year off from academic pursuits to try a career in writing. But Skinner concluded that he had nothing to say and called the time his dark year.

Having read Pavlov and others, Skinner turned from English to psychology and entered the doctoral program at Harvard University, where he began experiments on the behavior of rats that led to more than two dozen journal articles and culminated in his 1938 book, The Behavior of Organisms. In 1936 he moved to the University of Minnesota, where he continued basic research. World War II occasioned a project on training pigeons to guide missiles that got only to the point of a demonstration of feasibility, but a fringe benefit was the discovery of shaping, a technique for teaching new behavior. One other consequence was that pigeons began to replace rats as the dominant organism of the operant laboratory.

Another product of those days was the Aircrib, which Skinner built for his wife and second daughter. The windowed space with temperature and humidity control improved on the safety and comfort of ordinary cribs while making child care less burdensome. Rumors to the contrary, it was not used for experiments with the infant. Skinner noted that there was nothing natural about standard cribs; he had simply invented a better one.

In 1945 Skinner became Chair of the Department of Psychology at Indiana University. After his 1947 William James Lectures at Harvard University, on verbal behavior, he returned permanently to Harvard. His 1948 novel, Walden Two, which at first received little notice but later became widely read, described a utopia the most important feature of which was its experimental character: Any practice that did not work was to be modified until a more effective substitute was found.

Meanwhile, at Columbia College, Fred S. Keller and W. N. Schoenfeld created an undergraduate psychology curriculum based on Skinners work, including a one-year introductory course with a laboratory. With research now located at several universities, meetings of those interested in behavior analysis became a series of annual conferences. Eventually a formal division for the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (Division 25) was established within the American Psychological Association. During those years, while the Harvard Pigeon Laboratory provided students of operant behavior opportunities to develop their own independent lines of research, Skinner created the subject matter of reinforcement schedules in collaboration with Charles B. Ferster and built the first of his teaching machines. Soon after, Keller began his innovations in college teaching that introduced self-paced courses and behavioral definitions of teaching objectives. The Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior began publication in 1958; within a decade, the increased activity in applications of operant theory led to a companion journal, the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

In 1953, in his book Science and Human Behavior, Skinner dropped the formal structures of his early theorizing, modeled after theory in the physical sciences, and made the ties to biology explicit in his many references to evolutionary contingencies. He also began explicitly to extend the principles of his early research to human behavior. Here were treatments of self-control as competition between short-term and long-term contingencies involving consequences of different magnitude, of thinking as covert behavior, of reports of private events as verbal behavior shaped by verbal communities that had access only to public correlates, of social behavior, and of selves as functionally organized systems of responses. There was hardly a significant aspect of human endeavor that was not captured in one way or another by the net that Skinner had so widely cast.

Skinner retired from the laboratory in 1962, returning to it only briefly nearly 20 years later, but continued his writing throughout his life. His books include the controversial Beyond Freedom and Dignity in 1971, About Behaviorism in 1974, and a three-volume autobiography. In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner pointed out that some controversies about freedom result from confusions between two sources of the language of freedom. The issue of freedom versus determinism is a philosophical question with a long history, but the issue of freedom from coercion is an empirical problem that involves the consequences of various social and political practices. In our daily lives, we are typically concerned not so much with whether our choices are determined as with how our choices are determined and by whom. Doing something at the point of a gun is different from doing it under other circumstances.

Skinner learned of his leukemia in 1989. On August 10, 1990, at his final public appearance, he accepted a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. His remarks criticized cognitive science as the creationism of the twentieth century, in that it sought causes of behavior inside the organism instead of in the organisms environment. A week later, in hospital, Skinner put finishing touches on his last journal article, Can psychology be a science of mind?, for the American Psychologist. He died the next day, August 18, 1990. His last word, upon receiving a drink of water, was Marvelous.


Skinner followed Pavlov in insisting on the primacy of data and the study of individuals rather than groups but diverged from Pavlov in many ways. For Skinner, behavior was not to be taken as a symptom of something else. As interaction between organism and environment, it should be studied in its own right, not to resolve problems of physiology or to open the way to cognitive or other levels of analysis. Skinner did not disapprove of physiology but argued that without a science of behavior neuroscientists would not know what to look for in the nervous system.

In Pavlovian conditioning, a conditional stimulus comes to produce responses related to those elicited by an unconditional stimulus. The prototypical example is the elicitation of salivation by some stimulus that consistently precedes food. In Skinners operant behavior, the contingencies are different: A stimulus sets the occasion on which responses have some consequence; absent that stimulus, responses do not do so. The prototypical example is the rat whose lever presses produce food only in the presence of a light. The rat comes to press the lever only when the light is on. Such stimuli, colloquially called signals or cues, do not elicit responses; instead, they set the occasions on which responses have consequences. Such behavior, called operant because it operates on the environment, does not entail associations or stimulus-response connections. The three-term contingency, in which stimuli set the occasion upon which responding has consequences, is not reducible to pair-wise stimulus and response relations.

Here was a profoundly simple concept: The consequences of current behavior reinforce or select the behavior that will occur later. Associationism had been replaced by selectionism. Reinforcement operates on populations of responses within individual lifetimes much as evolutionary selection operates on populations over successive generations in Darwinian natural selection. The populations, operants, are classes of responses defined by their effects rather than by what they look like (Skinner also considered implications of a third variety of selection, sometimes called cultural or memetic selection, that occurs when behavior is passed on from one organism to another, as in imitation).

Shaping, which creates novel behavior through reinforcement of responses that successively approximate it, illustrates reinforcement as selection. For example, if the strongest of a rats initially weak lever presses are reinforced, the force of pressing increases and the reinforcement criterion can be moved up to the strongest of the new population. With continuing force increases and criterion changes, the rat soon presses with forces that would never have been observed without shaping. Shaping opened up education, developmental disabilities, behavioral medicine and even the training of pets to applications of behavior analysis. When research produced variable results, solutions were sought not by averaging over more subjects but by refining procedural details to identify sources of variability. The applied analysis of behavior is recognized for both effectiveness and accountability; treatment of early autism is among its several notable successes.

The discovery that behavior could be maintained easily even when responses were reinforced only occasionally led to schedules of reinforcement, which arrange rein-forcers based on number of responses, the times when they occur, or various combinations of these and other variables. Different schedules produce different temporal patterns of responding. A device that Skinner called the cumulative recorder allowed these temporal patterns to be visualized in considerable detail. Schedules are now used widely in studies ranging from psychopharmacology to behavioral economics.


In his 1957 book, Verbal Behavior, Skinner extended his analyses to the functions of words. His approach differs from linguistics, the study of language, in that linguists describe practices of verbal communities in terms of the grammars, vocabularies, and phonetic units characterizing different languages; these descriptions of language structure tell little about their functions. This behavioral distinction is analogous to that between physiology (function) and anatomy (structure) in biology. Behavior analysis, following from Skinners work, deals mainly with function (i.e., how does behavior work, what does it do), whereas cognitive science deals more often with structure (e.g., organization in what is perceived or learned).

Skinners book was mainly about language function. A critical 1959 review by the linguist Noam Chomsky was more concerned with language structure than with the functional content of Skinners account. Verbal Behavior provided a taxonomy of function rather than structure (for example, identifying verbal classes by their effects rather than by their topographies), applying it to a broad range of verbal phenomena. Later expansions extended the taxonomy to the origins of novelty in verbal behavior. Skinner did not reply to Chomskys review because it had missed the point, but unfortunately some interpreted his failure to reply as a sign that he could not do so. Skinner and others addressed Chomskys review only long after.

One function of verbal behavior is instruction; people often do things because they are instructed to do them. Following instructions has social consequences and is crucial to many social institutionsfamilies, schools, industry, the militaryso it is important to understand not only how instructions work but also how they can go wrong (e.g., as in following unethical orders without question). Skinner called behavior that depended on words rule-governed behavior, though it is now more often called verbally governed behavior. In verbal governance, what we say about what we do often determines what we do. Contemporary analyses of verbal behavior include experimental studies of how verbal governance comes about and the conditions under which it occurs.


Skinners analyses were also about how we come to know ourselves. We think we have privileged access to private events such as feelings and thoughts, but how do we learn to talk about them? Parents who see the colors that a child sees can respond appropriately to the childs color naming and so can teach the names, but how can a verbal community without access to relevant stimuli create and maintain verbal responses? In referred pain, a bad tooth in the lower jaw may be reported as a toothache in the upper jaw; here the dentist is a better judge than the patient of where the bad tooth really is. If we can be mistaken even about the location of a toothache, how can other reports of private events be reliable?

Skinner did not deny the private, but noted that common vocabularies can be based only on what is mutually accessible to both speakers and listeners. If private feelings do not have public correlates, how can one tell when anyone else has them? If one cannot tell, how can one ever teach appropriate words? This is a problem because much of the language of cognitive thought originates in the vocabulary of private events.

According to Skinner, processes called cognitive (e.g., thinking, visualizing) are kinds of behavior. Skinner did not deny events taking place inside the skin, but maintained that they should be called private rather than mental. When Skinner criticized representations in cognitive psychology, the issue was not whether lasting effects are produced by stimuli (an organism that has responded to a stimulus is a changed organism). Rather, it was about the form the change takes. Skinner opposed copy theories of behavior or perception. A representation is not necessarily a copy (a spoken letter may represent a seen one but has no visual properties in common with it), so it is of interest that the most successful cognitive accounts do not involve representations that function as copies. In this regard, behavior analysis shares its views with cognitive scientists who are advocates of neural nets and connectionist systems.

SEE ALSO Behaviorism; Cognition; Determinism; Linguistic Turn; Operant Conditioning; Pavlov, Ivan; Reinforcement Theories; Skinner Box


Lattal, Kennon A., ed. 1992. Reflections on B. F. Skinner and Psychology. American Psychologist 47: 1269-1533.

Skinner, B. F. 1938. The Behavior of Organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B. F. 1957. Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B. F. 1990. Can Psychology Be a Science of Mind? American Psychologist 45: 1206-1210.

Skinner, B. F. 1999. Cumulative Record. 4th ed. Acton, MA: B. F. Skinner Foundation.

A. Charles Catania

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Skinner, B. F.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Skinner, B. F.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . (April 23, 2017).

"Skinner, B. F.." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Skinner, B. F. (1904–1990)

SKINNER, B. F. (19041990)

Burrhus Frederick Skinner pioneered the science of behavioral analysis and positive reinforcement as an educational tool. Skinner grew up in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, a small railroad town thirty miles from the New York state line. His father was an ambitious lawyer for the Erie railroad; his mother, a civic-minded woman that continually reminded Frederick to be aware of "what other people think." Despite his mother's strictures, young Skinner enjoyed his Susquehanna boyhood, roamed the countryside, built ingenious gadgets, and did well in school. In 1922 he was valedictorian of his high school class, having gained a reputation for debating intellectual matters with his teachers. That year he enrolled in Hamilton College, just outside Utica, New York, where he spent a miserable first year as he lacked athletic ability and connections with Hamilton alumni. In his second year, however, he entered a social circle at Hamilton that appreciated intellectual and artistic life. He began writing short stories; one was praised by poet Robert Frost.

Graduating in 1926, Skinner, against the advice of his parents, decided to spend the next year becoming a writer. He moved into their house in Scranton where his father had taken a position as general counsel for a coal company. It was Skinner's "dark year" as he discovered he had "nothing to say" as a writer. But he was drawn toward behavioral psychology, having read philosopher Bertram Russell's favorable review of John B. Watson's Behaviorism (1928). After a short fling with bohemian life in Greenwich Village, Skinner enrolled in graduate school at Harvard University in the psychology department.

Behavioral Analysis

Skinner, however, was not attracted to psychology at Harvard so much as to the physiology of Professor William Crozier, a student of German physiologist Jacque Loeb. Loeb and Crozier insisted that real science depended on controlling experimental results rather than mere observation of the phenomena being studied. For Skinner the foundation of behavioral analysis became the control of experimental variables. By 1930 he had devised an apparatus to control a specific behavior of a rat. Starting with a runway resembling a rat maze, Skinner gradually fashioned a box with a lever that delivered a food pellet when the rat pushed it. He also invented the cumulative recorder, a kymograph-like device that marked a paper every time the rat pressed the lever. He allowed the rat (only one to a box) to be fed a pellet only after it pressed a certain number of times, a behavior control known as schedules of reinforcement. He was able to shape lever-pressing behavior so that every time a rat was put on a particular schedule of reinforcement the rate of lever pressing remained constant. The measured behavior was as regular as a pulse beat and marked the beginning of the science of behavioral analysis.

Skinner took great pains to distinguish his science from the stimulus-response conditioning of Ivan Pavlov. The latter conditioned surgically altered dogs. He measured the increase in saliva flow (the response) when a bell was rung (the stimulus) before feeding. Skinner, on the other hand, always used intact organisms (either rats or pigeons), and was only concerned with lever-pressing behavior, never glandular secretion. He acknowledged Pavlov's pioneering work in reinforcement and conditioning but insisted that the science of behavioral analysis involved operant conditioning. By 1933 he admitted that there were a multitude of rat behaviors that were not conditioned in what became known as the Skinner Box. The rat ran about, stood on hind legs, sniffed, and so forth. But the operation (operant) of lever-pushing was controlled by the schedule of rein-forcementnot immediately by the food itself but by the sound of the magazine as it dropped the pellet. Hence although stimulus and response could not always be identified, let alone controlled, the operant or behavior of lever-pressing could be. The rat was not conditioned, only one class of rat behavior was.

The Behavior of Organisms (1938) clearly established operant behavioral analysis as a new science. Had he only been exclusively concerned with the behavior of rats and pigeons, Skinner would have already secured a significant place in the history of science. But he became a social inventor whose creations (both mechanical and literary) made him one of the most controversial scientists of the twentieth century. The Behavior of Organisms announced Skinner's vision for the future of behavioral analysis: "The importance of a science of behavior derives largely from the possibility of an extension to human affairs" (pp. 441-42). Ultimately this extension would impact American education.

Social Service

Upon leaving Harvard in 1936 (he received his doctorate in 1933 but continued as a junior fellow) Skinner married Yvonne (Eve) Blue after accepting a position at the University of Minnesota. There he began to transfer operant science to social service. During World War II Skinner and a team of students developed a guidance system for bomb-carrying missiles. A pigeon was conditioned through positive reinforcement to peck the aiming device. But the army deemed "Project Pigeon" unfeasible for wartime use. Disappointed but not discouraged, Skinner moved more directly into a career as a social inventor. He turned his attention to building a baby-tender, later trademarked the aircrib, for his youngest daughter, Deborah.

The contraption was a carefully designed enclosed space, thermostatically controlled to allow the infant to move freely without constraining clothes. The child could be removed from the baby-tender at any time. It also freed the mother from constant vigilance over the baby because the infant was much more secure than in a conventional crib. Skinner did not do operant experiments on Deborah in the baby-tender; rather, it was designed to improve the quality of life for both mother and child. After an article in Life magazine, the baby-tender was immediately criticized as another Skinner Box, one that imprisoned the child and destroyed the intimate mother-child relationship. For the first time Skinner's fascination with social invention had thrust him into national limelight and controversy.

Thereafter Skinner became evermore controversial as he moved aggressively into the possibilities for using operant science to build a better world. Walden Two (1948) envisioned a planned environment that shaped the behaviors of a community using operant techniques of positive reinforcement. Community cooperation and welfare were seemingly naturally conditioned and destructive competition disappeared. The novel met fierce critical commentary as many Americans thought it a grotesque distortion of Henry David Thoreau's Walden. Nonetheless by the late 1960s the book became a best-seller and several actual communities were established modeled after the fictional Walden Two.

Educational Reform

Leaving the University of Minnesota in 1945, Skinner spent three years at Indiana University before returning to Harvard in 1948. In November 1953 he visited a Cambridge school where Deborah was a student and was appalled by the mathematics instruction. Students were given problems to solve while the teacher walked up and down the aisles, helping some but ignoring others. Some students finished quickly and fidgeted; others struggled. Graded papers were returned days later. Skinner thought there must be a better way and immediately fashioned a crude teaching machine by cutting up manila folders. The manila folder effort evolved into a slider machine used mostly for arithmetic and spelling. Math problems, for example, were printed on cards that students placed in the machine. The right answer caused a light to appear in a hole in the card. Later he made a device that allowed students to compose answers to questions on a tape that emerged from the machine. Later still, students could compose answers on cardboard disks. A lever was moved that covered the student's answer with a Plexiglas platean innovation that prevented altering the answer and also revealed the correct one. Students mostly answered correctly because questions were designed sequentially from simple to complex. This "programmed instruction" was engineered with positive reinforcement coming from correctly answering the questions. With few mistakes the student progressed rapidly toward mastering arithmetic and spelling. Hence, learning behaviors were shaped by immediate positive reinforcement.

Skinner did not invent the first teaching machine and gave full credit to Sidney Pressey of Ohio State University who had developed a revolving drum device in 1926. Pressey's machine allowed students to press one of four buttons that revealed the correct or incorrect answerin effect a multiple choice test. Skinner's machines, however, facilitated programmed instruction designed as sequential positive reinforcement. The teaching machine simply transferred immediate positive reinforcement to the mastery of subject matter. One teacher could not possibly immediately reinforce twenty or thirty students in a classroom. What was needed in American education was a technology that incorporated operant conditioning to shaping the learning behavior of each individual student. Skinner assembled a group of former students and colleagues to produce programmed instruction across of full spectrum of subject matter. He convinced companies such as IBM and Rheem to develop prototype teaching machines that could be mass produced. He hoped for a revolution in American education that he described in Technology of Teaching (1968).

But the companies refused to aggressively market the machines and educational leaders, most notably former Harvard President James Bryant Conant, though initially enthusiastic, lost interest. IBM and Rheem could make more money on safer investments, while Conant believed the machines and programmed instruction had not proved their viability to educational experts in each subject area. Then, too, the fears of school administrators and teachers over losing control of a traditionally structured classroom, and perhaps also their jobs, dampened enthusiasm for the teaching machine and programmed instruction. The failure of his teaching machine to become as common as automobiles and televisions was Skinner's most bitter disappointment as a social inventor. He fervently believed that the survival of American culture depended upon a revolution in education. With population growth threatening to overwhelm the ability of people to avoid catastrophic wars and ecological disasters, only a technology of teaching incorporating behavioral science could properly educate a citizenry capable of effectively coping with an enveloping ominous world.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) was Skinner's last and most controversial social statement. He attacked what he believed were the fictions of individual freedom and autonomous man. Every person was under the control of his or her evolutionary, cultural, and immediate operant or behavioral contingencies. What was needed was not only a frank admission of this reality, but the application of the science of behavioral analysis to social problemsmost importantly to the obvious failure of U.S. schools. But the critics and the public read the word beyond in the book title as in place of and were enraged. Skinner made the cover of Time with the inscription, "B. F. Skinner Says We Can't Afford Freedom." He was bewildered by the firestorm of criticism and spent his remaining years answering critics and defending behavioral analysis. He never quite understood the historical entrenchment of treasured American values such as freedom and autonomy. Nonetheless, the alternative road for American schools that Skinner, a great and provocative thinker-inventor, devised remains an important contribution to the field of education.

See also: Developmental Theory, subentry on Historical Overview; Harvard University; Learning Theory, subentry on Historical Over-View; Pressey, Sidney L.


Bjork, Daniel. 1993. B. F. Skinner: A Life. New York: Basic Books.

Skinner, B. F. 1935. "The Generic Nature of the Concepts of Stimulus and Response." Journal of General Psychology 9:4045.

Skinner, B. F. 1938. The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B. F. 1948. Walden Two. New York: Macmillan.

Skinner, B. F. 1958. "Teaching Machines." Science 129: 969977.

Skinner, B. F. 1968. The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B. F. 1971. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.

Smith, Laurence D., and Woodward, William R., eds. 1996. B. F. Skinner and Behaviorism in American Culture. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press.

Daniel Bjork

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Skinner, B. F. (1904–1990)." Encyclopedia of Education. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Skinner, B. F. (1904–1990)." Encyclopedia of Education. . (April 23, 2017).

"Skinner, B. F. (1904–1990)." Encyclopedia of Education. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Burrhus Frederic Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner

The American experimental psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) became the chief exponent of that form of behaviorism known as operationism, or operant behaviorism.

Born in Susquehanna, Ohio, B. F. Skinner attended Hamilton College. He then went to Harvard, where he received a master's degree in 1930 and a doctorate in experimental psychology in 1931. In 1936 he began teaching at the University of Minnesota, the same year he married Yvonne Blue; they had two daughters.

In Skinner's first book, Behavior of Organisms (1938), he "clung doggedly to the term reflex, thus allowing his immediate psychological roots in classical or early behaviorism." A Guggenheim fellowship enabled him to begin writing Verbal Behavior in 1941. He continued on the fellowship through 1945, finishing most of the manuscript. In 1947 he gave a course at Columbia University and the William James Lecture at Harvard, both based on Verbal Behavior, which, however, he put off publishing for 20 years. Walden Two (1948) described his notions on a feasible design for (utopian) community living.

In 1954 Skinner became chairman of the Department of Psychology at Indiana University and published "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?" Conferences begun at Indiana culminated in 1958 in a new journal, Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior.

Air Crib and Skinner Box

Toward the end of World War II, with the birth of his second child, Skinner built an air crib for baby care in which the infant, instead of staying in a tight crib wrapped in layers of cloth, can lie with only a diaper on in an enclosed space which is temperature-controlled and plastic-sheeted, thus allowing the child greater freedom of movement. Many babies are now raised in this way.

During the 1950s, stimulated by an interest in psycho-pharmacology, Skinner studied operant behavior of psychotics at the Metropolitan State Hospital in Waltham, Mass. For his systematic experiments on this type of behavior, Skinner designed his famous Skinner box, a compartment in which a rat, by pressing a bar, learns to repeat the act because each time he does so a pellet of food is received as a reward. Skinner demonstrated that when these reinforcements accompany or follow certain specific behavior, learning occurs in the experimental animal. Such a response, reinforced by food or other means, is called operant behavior and is distinguished from respondent behavior, which is elicited by a stimulus. Skinner's main concern in studying operant behavior and its parameters was neither "with the causal continuity between stimulus and response, nor with the intervening variables, but simply with the correlation between stimulus (S) and response (R)."

Two Important Books

Skinner's books Verbal Behavior (1957), while omitting the citation of experimental evidence for its assertions, gives a highly objective functional account of language, with the basic unit of analysis being the verbal operant. He explains how differential social reinforcement from other members of the speech community forms, strengthens, or weakens dependency relations between stimulus variables and verbal responses. Included also are discussions of how listener "belief" is fortified by reinforced responses to a speaker's words; how the metaphorical expressions of a speaker reflect the kinds of stimuli which control his behavior; how and why it is that we cease verbalizing; suggestions regarding the nature of aphasia; and logical and scientific verbal behavior.

In Schedules of Reinforcement (1957) Skinner and his coauthors reported on a research program that was "designed to evaluate the extent to which an organism's own behavior enters into the determination of its subsequent behavior." They demonstrated that response rates, temporal patterns of rates, and patterning of rate in the temporal vicinity of the reinforcer are dependent upon the schedule of reinforcement. No detailed quantitative laws emerge, however, from their 70,000 hours of data gathering. Schedules is suggestive regarding the power of the operant as a tool to investigate psychopharmacological and neurophysiological problems.

Skinner acknowledged Roger Bacon as an influence on his thinking and formulating. Skinner said that he emulated him because Bacon rejected verbal authority; studied and asked questions of phenomena rather than of those who had studied the phenomena; classified in order to reveal properties; recognized that experimentation included all contingencies, whereas mere observation overstresses stimuli; and realized that if nature can be commanded, it must also be obeyed.

Critics of operationism maintained that it disregarded problems such as motives, personality, thought, and purpose or greatly diminished their relevance or importance. Although Skinner dealt with complex psychological problems, his mode of treatment of these problems was criticized as having been seriously limited. His basic behaviorist viewpoint itself has been questioned recently, in part because it rejects consciousness. The concept of consciousness cannot be omitted from psychology without a serious loss in explaining much that man does—since the viewpoint is completely indifferent to introspection.

On August 18, 1990 Skinner died and was buried at the Mt. Auburn Cemetary in Massachussetts. He left behind many distinctive awards and achievements. In 1968 he was awarded the National Medal of Science, in 1971 he was honored with the Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr. Foundation Award, and in 1985 was given the Albert Einstein School of Medecine award for excellence in psychiatry. Skinner continued to write throughout his later years, authoring such works as Enjoy Old Age (1983), Upon Further Reflection (1986), and Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior.

Further Reading

Skinner's autobiographical account is in A History of Psychology in Autobiography, vol. 5 (1967), edited by E. G. Boring. William S. Sahakian, ed., History of Psychology: A Source Book in Systematic Psychology (1968), has representative selections from Skinner's writings. Richard Isadore Evans, B. F. Skinner: The Man and His Ideas (1968), is a useful full-length study. Skinner's importance in the history of psychology is analyzed in the excellent study of Henryk Misiak and Virginia Staudt Sexton, History of Psychology: An Overview (1966). □

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Burrhus Frederic Skinner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Burrhus Frederic Skinner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . (April 23, 2017).

"Burrhus Frederic Skinner." Encyclopedia of World Biography. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Skinner, B. F.

B. F. Skinner

American psychologist and advocate of behaviorism.

B. F. (Burrhus Frederic) Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. As a youth, he showed talent for music and writing, as well as mechanical aptitude. He attended Hamilton College as an English major, with the goal of becoming a professional writer. After graduation, Skinner, discouraged over his literary prospects, became interested in behavioristic psychology after reading the works of John Watson and Ivan Pavlov . He entered Harvard University as a graduate student in psychology in 1928 and received his degree three years later. Skinner remained at Harvard through 1936, by which time he was a junior fellow of the prestigious Society of Fellows. While at Harvard, he laid the foundation for a new system of behavioral analysis through his research in the field of animal learning, utilizing unique experimental equipment of his own design.

His most successful and well-known apparatus, known as the Skinner Box, was a cage in which a laboratory rat could, by pressing on a bar, activate a mechanism that would drop a food pellet into the cage. Another device recorded each press of the bar, producing a permanent record of experimental results without the presence of a tester. Skinner analyzed the rats' bar-pressing behavior by varying his patterns of reinforcement (feeding) to learn their responses to different schedules (including random ones). Using this box to study how rats "operated on" their environment led Skinner to formulate the principle of operant conditioningapplicable to a wide range of both human and animal behaviors through which an experimenter can gradually shape the behavior of a subject by manipulating its responses through reinforcement or lack of it. In contrast to Pavlovian, or response, conditioning , which depends on an outside stimulus, Skinner's operant conditioning depends on the subject's responses themselves. Skinner introduced

the concept of operant conditioning to the public in his first book, The Behavior of Organisms (1938).

Between 1936 and 1948 Skinner held faculty positions at the University of Minnesota and the University of Indiana, after which he returned permanently to Harvard. His ideas eventually became so influential that the American Psychological Association created a separate division of studies related to them (Division 25: "The Experimental Analysis of Behavior"), and four journals of behaviorist research were established. In the 1940s Skinner began training animals to perform complex activities by first teaching them chains of simpler ones. He was quite successful in training laboratory animals to perform apparently remarkable and complex activities. One example of this involved pigeons that learned to play table tennis.

Skinner's observation of the effectiveness of incremental training of animals led him to formulate the principles of programmed instruction for human students, in which the concept of reward, or reinforcement, is fundamental, and complex subjects such as mathematics are broken down into simple components presented in order of increasing difficulty. Presented with a set of relatively simple questions, students receive immediate reinforcementand thus incentive to continueby being told that their answers were correct. The programmed learning movement became highly influential in the United States and abroad. Although this technique eventually came under criticism by educators advocating more holistic methods of instruction, it remains a valuable teaching tool. Courses and course materials based on it have been developed for many subjects, and at levels of difficulty ranging from kindergarten through graduate school.

Skinner's work was also influential in the clinical treatment of mental and emotional disorders. In the late 1940s he began to develop the behavior modification method, in which subjects receive a series of small rewards for desired behavior. Considered a useful technique for psychologists and psychiatrists with deeply disturbed patients, behavior modification has also been widely used by the general population in overcoming obesity , shyness , speech defects, addiction to smoking, and other problems. Extending his ideas to the realm of philosophy, Skinner concluded that all behavior was the result of either positive or negative reinforcement, and thus the existence of free will was merely an illusion. To explore the social ramifications of his behaviorist principles, he wrote the novel Walden Two (1948), which depicted a utopian society in which all reinforcement was positive. While detractors of this controversial work regarded its vision of social control through strict positive reinforcement as totalitarian, the 1967 founding of the Twin Oaks Community in Virginia was inspired by Skinner's ideas. Skinner elaborated further on his ideas about positive social control in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which critiques the notion of human autonomy, arguing that many actions ascribed to free will are performed due to necessity.

Skinner has been listed in The 100 Most Important People in the World, and in a 1975 survey he was identified as the best-known scientist in the United States. Skinner's other books include Science and Human Behavior (1953) and Verbal Behavior (1957).

See also Behaviorism

Further Reading

Carpenter, Finley. The Skinner Primer: Behind Freedom and Dignity. New York: Free Press, 1974.

Skinner, B.F. Particulars of My Life. New York: Knopf, 1976.

. The Shaping of a Behaviorist. New York: Knopf, 1979.

. A Matter of Consequences. New York: Knopf, 1983.

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Skinner, B. F.." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Skinner, B. F.." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . (April 23, 2017).

"Skinner, B. F.." Gale Encyclopedia of Psychology. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, 1904–90, American psychologist, b. Susquehanna, Pa. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, and remained there as an instructor until 1936, when he moved to the Univ. of Minnesota (1937–45) and to Indiana Univ., where he was chairman of the psychology department (1945–48). He returned to Harvard in 1948, becoming the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1958. Skinner was the leading exponent of the school of psychology known as behaviorism, which explains the behavior of humans and other animals in terms of the physiological responses of the organism to external stimuli. Like other behaviorists, he rejected unobservable phenomena of the sort that other forms of psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, had studied, concerning himself only with patterns of responses to rewards and stimuli. Skinner maintained that learning occurred as a result of the organism responding to, or operating on, its environment, and coined the term operant conditioning to describe this phenomenon. He did extensive research with animals, notably rats and pigeons, and invented the famous Skinner box, in which a rat learns to press a lever in order to obtain food. Skinner's more well-known published works include The Behavior of Organisms (1938), Walden Two (1948), Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), and About Behaviorism (1974, repr. 1976).

See his autobiography (3 vol., 1984); studies by F. Carpenter (1974) and S. Modgil, ed. (1987).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . (April 23, 2017).

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic." The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed.. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (1904–90) US psychologist. He developed the concept of operant conditioning (the control of behaviour by its consequences or reinforcements). His many books include Science and Human Behaviour (1953), Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) and a controversial novel about social engineering Walden II (1948).

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic." World Encyclopedia. . 23 Apr. 2017 <>.

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic." World Encyclopedia. . (April 23, 2017).

"Skinner, Burrhus Frederic." World Encyclopedia. . Retrieved April 23, 2017 from