Skinner, B. F.

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The reinventor and foremost champion of behaviorist psychology, Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904–1990) was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania on March 20, and died at age 86 in Cambridge, Massachusetts on August 18. Building on the work of Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936), Edward Thorndike (1874–1949), and J. B. Watson (1878–1958), B. F. Skinner made unique contributions to the science of human behavior and intended for his work to serve as the basis for technologies by which human beings could control themselves and others for the benefit of all.

Life and Achievements

Graduating from Hamilton College, New York, with a bachelor's degree in English, Skinner initially wanted to become a writer. This vocation eluded him, and after a period of time in Greenwich Village he enrolled for graduate studies at Harvard University, where he earned his doctorate in psychology in 1931. In 1936 he went to teach at the University of Minnesota, where he met and married Yvonne Blue. In 1945 he became chair of the psychology department at Indiana University, but three years later returned to Harvard as a professor, where he remained for the rest of his academic career.

Skinner's work centered on the idea of operant conditioning. Unlike classical behaviorism, operant conditioning is the idea that as living organisms move about in their environments, behaviors that meet with reinforcing stimuli will be promoted, and other behaviors will not. Imagine saying "Hello" to associates at work, to which they give cheerful and friendly replies, leading to increased greetings; in the absence of any response, greetings will likely diminish or cease. Skinner elaborated this insight into diverse schedules of reinforcement (fixed and variable ratio and interval schedules) in order to investigate empirically their various degrees of effectiveness in behavior modification. Anthony Burgess's novel, A Clockwork Orange (1962) and the Stanley Kubrick film of the same title (1972) misrepresent behavior modification as using aversive reinforcement or stimuli (punishment) to discourage behavior, which Skinner regarded as ineffective.

Skinner was a fervent advocate of the application of operant conditioning. He even publicized that he applied his theories to his children, especially his younger daughter, who was in part raised in an air crib designed by Skinner. As a result of Skinner's work, operant conditioning became popular among therapists; some remained devotees into the twenty-first century.

But some problems with operant conditioning have led to skepticism. Among these are the underlying assumption of determinism and the dismissal of human consciousness. Skinner also proposed awkward ways for understanding emotions and thinking—the latter he dubbed "probability of verbal behavior"—so they would conform to the requirement of being observable (in Skinner's mind, a general requirement for all experimental sciences).

It is also unclear how some reinforcing stimuli become reinforcing in the first place. Suppose one hopes that saying "Hello" will encourage associates to leave one alone. Instead, they become intrusively friendly. The condition thus backfires. Ordinarily it is not difficult to tell a welcome response, but with complex actions this is no longer simple. Some critics argue that Skinner was openly ambivalent about whether human conscious life exists (Baars 2003), but others find in Skinner the most advanced way to apply modern science to human life and human society (Woodward and Smith 1996).


Skinner thought that his insights into the technology of behavior ought to be used to cure sociopolitical problems. His presentation of this view in a utopian novel, Walden II (1948), and in such applications as The Technology of Teaching (1968), drew extensive criticism. Many charged him with proposing an anti-democratic technocracy that would extinguish human liberty and morality.

His response to this criticism was his most famous book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). Here he argued that "freedom" and "dignity" are pre-scientific concepts, and shifting to scientific terminology and applications would advance human life and society better than rhetoric. For Skinner, the scientific approach is the most dependable, reliable way to understand the world, and the implications of this approach are so significant as to render it imperative to follow it in all spheres of human concern. Religion, morality, free will, and even feelings are to be purged from an objective (that is to say, empirical) scientific conception of relationships to the world and each other. Indeed, Skinner thought that the more humans adopted his recommendations, the more likely they would be to achieve the goal of peace.

As to the overall success of Skinner's ideas, on some fronts his views have triumphed. His ideas that humans and other animals are pretty much the same have been well received in the burgeoning animal rights or liberation movement, for example. In applied psychology, however, Skinner has lost much appeal. Cognitive psychology, for example, has eclipsed his behaviorism. Skinner remains, however, one of the twentieth century's most prominent theorists about human behavior, next, perhaps, only to Sigmund Freud.


SEE ALSO Genetics and Behavior;Psychology;Utopia and Dystopia.


Baars, Bernard J. (2003). "The Double Life of B.F. Skinner: Inner Conflict, Dissociation and the Scientific Taboo Against Consciousness." Journal of Consciousness Studies 10(1): 5–25(21). This issue of the journal contains the lead essay by Baars and several replies, including one from Skinner's daughter, Julie S. Vargas.

Bjork, Daniel W. (1993). B. F. Skinner: A Life. New York: Basic Books. This is a comprehensive guide to B. F. Skinner's life.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two. New York: Macmillan. Skinner's novel is his illustration of the kind of society his technology of behavior would produce.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and Human Behavior. New York: Macmillan. Skinner's most accessible scientific book.

Skinner, B. F. (1968). The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. The focus here is the deployment of Skinner's technique for teaching.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Viking. Skinner's most popular book on his understanding of human life and society.

Skinner, B. F. (1974). About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf. Skinner's explanation of his work in the later stages of his career.

Woodward, William R., and Laurence D. Smith, eds. (1996). B. F. Skinner and Behaviorism in American Culture. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press. A good collection of reflections on Skinner's work.

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