B. F. Skinner

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B. F. Skinner
B.F. Skinner at Harvard circa 1950.jpg
B.F. Skinner at the Harvard Psychology Department, c. 1950
Born (1904-03-20)20 March 1904
Susquehanna, Pennsylvania
Died 18 August 1990(1990-08-18) (aged 86)
Cambridge, Massachusetts
Nationality American
Fields Psychology, linguistics, philosophy
Institutions University of Minnesota
Indiana University
Harvard University
Alma mater Hamilton College
Harvard University
Known for Operant conditioning
Influences Charles Darwin
Ivan Pavlov
Ernst Mach
Jacques Loeb
Edward Thorndike
William James
Jean-Jacques Rousseau
Henry David Thoreau
Notable awards National Medal of Science (1968)

Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher.[1][2][3][4] He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.[5]

Skinner believed that human free will is an illusion and that any human action is the result of the consequences of the same action. If the consequences are bad, there is a high chance that the action will not be repeated; however if the consequences are good, the actions that led to it will become more probable.[6] Skinner called this the principle of reinforcement.[7] The use of reinforcement to strengthen behavior he called operant conditioning. As his main tool for studying operant conditioning Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, also known as the Skinner Box.[8]

Skinner developed his own philosophy of science called radical behaviorism,[9] and founded a school of experimental research psychology—the experimental analysis of behavior. His analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior, as well as his philosophical manifesto Walden Two, both of which[citation needed] still stimulate considerable experimental research and clinical application.[10] Contemporary academia considers Skinner a pioneer of modern behaviorism along with John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov.

Skinner emphasized rate of response as a dependent variable in psychological research. He invented the cumulative recorder to measure response rate as part of his highly influential work on schedules of reinforcement.[11][12] In a June 2002 survey, Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century.[13] He was a prolific author who published 21 books and 180 articles.[14][15]


The Skinners' grave at Mount Auburn Cemetery

Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania to William and Grace Skinner. His father was a lawyer. He became an atheist after a Christian teacher tried to assuage his fear of the hell that his grandmother described.[16] His brother Edward, two and a half years younger, died at age sixteen of a cerebral hemorrhage. He attended Hamilton College in New York with the intention of becoming a writer. He found himself at a social disadvantage at Hamilton College due to his intellectual attitude.[17] While attending, he joined Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. He wrote for the school paper, but as an atheist, he was critical of the religious school he attended. After receiving his B.A. in English literature in 1926, he attended Harvard University, where he would later research, teach, and eventually become a prestigious board member. While he was at Harvard a fellow student, Fred Keller, convinced Skinner that he could make an experimental science from the study of behavior. This led Skinner to invent his prototype for the Skinner Box and to join Keller in the creation of other tools for small experiments.[17] After graduation, he unsuccessfully tried to write a great novel while he lived with his parents, a period that he later called the Dark Years.[17] He became disillusioned with his literary skills despite encouragement from the renowned poet Robert Frost, concluding that he had little world experience and no strong personal perspective from which to write. His encounter with John B. Watson's Behaviorism led him into graduate study in psychology and to the development of his own version of behaviorism.[18]

Skinner received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, and remained there as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and later at Indiana University, where he was chair of the psychology department from 1946–1947, before returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained at Harvard for the rest of his life. In 1973 Skinner was one of the signers of the Humanist Manifesto II.[19]

In 1936, Skinner married Yvonne Blue. The couple had two daughters, Julie (m. Vargas) and Deborah (m. Buzan).[20][21] He died of leukemia on August 18, 1990,[22] and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.[23] Skinner continued to write and work until just before his death. A few days before Skinner died, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the American Psychological Association and delivered a 15-minute address concerning his work.[24]

A controversial figure, Skinner has been depicted in many different ways. He has been widely revered for bringing a much-needed scientific approach to the study of human behavior; he has also been vilified for attempting apply findings based largely on animal experiments to human behavior in real-life settings.

Contributions to psychological theory[edit]


Main article: Behaviorism

Skinner called his approach to the study of behavior "Radical" behaviorism.[25] This philosophy of behavioral science is based on the idea that behavior is a consequence of environmental histories of reinforcement, a functional analysis that has yielded tools and techniques for modifying behavior. (see Applied behavior analysis). In contrast to the approach of cognitive science, and even unlike less austere behaviorism, radical behaviorism does not accept private events such as thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions as causes of an organism's behavior.

The position can be stated as follows: what is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind, or mental life but the observer's own body. This does not mean, as I shall show later, that introspection is a kind of psychological research, nor does it mean (and this is the heart of the argument) that what are felt or introspectively observed are the causes of the behavior. An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection. At the moment we must content ourselves, as the methodological behaviorist insists, with a person's genetic and environment histories. What are introspectively observed are certain collateral products of those histories.

In this way we repair the major damage wrought by mentalism. When what a person does [is] attributed to what is going on inside him, investigation is brought to an end. Why explain the explanation? For twenty five hundred years people have been preoccupied with feelings and mental life, but only recently has any interest been shown in a more precise analysis of the role of the environment. Ignorance of that role led in the first place to mental fictions, and it has been perpetuated by the explanatory practices to which they gave rise.[26]

Theoretical structure[edit]

Skinner's behavioral theory was largely set forth in his first book, Behavior of Organisms.[27] Here he gave a systematic description of the manner in which environmental variables control behavior. He distinguished two sorts of behavior, which are controlled in different ways. First respondent behaviors, which are elicited by stimuli. These may be modified through respondent conditioning, which is often called "Pavlovian conditioning" or "classical conditioning", in which a neutral stimulus is paired with an eliciting stimulus. Operant behaviors, in contrast, are emitted. They are modified through operant conditioning, sometimes called "instrumental conditioning," in which the occurrence of a response yields a reinforcing stimulus. Respondents might be measured by their latency or strength, operants by their rate. Both of these sorts of behavior had already been studied experimentally, for example, respondents by Pavlov [28] and operants by Thorndike.[29] Skinner's account differed in some ways from earlier ones,[30] and was one of the first accounts to bring them under one roof.


Main article: Reinforcement

Reinforcement, a key concept of Behaviorism, is the primary process that shapes and controls behavior, and occurs in two ways, "positive" and "negative". In The Behavior of Organisms (1938), Skinner defined "negative reinforcement" to be synonymous with punishment, that is, the presentation of an aversive stimulus. Subsequently, in Science and Human Behavior (1953), Skinner redefined negative reinforcement. In what has now become the standard set of definitions, positive reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the occurrence of some event (e.g., praise after some behavior is performed), whereas negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the removal or avoidance of some aversive event (e.g., opening and raising an umbrella over your head on a rainy day is reinforced by the cessation of rain falling on you).

Both types of reinforcement strengthen behavior, or increase the probability of a behavior reoccurring; the difference is in whether the reinforcing event is something applied (positive reinforcement) or something removed or avoided (negative reinforcement). Punishment is the application of an aversive stimulus/event (positive punishment or punishment by contingent stimulation) or the removal of a desirable stimulus (negative punishment or punishment by contingent withdrawal). Though punishment is often used to suppress behavior, Skinner argued that this suppression is temporary and has a number of other, often unwanted, consequences.[31] Extinction is the absence of a rewarding stimulus, which weakens behavior.

Writing in 1981, Skinner pointed out that Darwinian natural selection is, like reinforced behavior, "selection by consequences." Though, as he said, natural selection has now "made its case", he regretted that essentially the same process, "reinforcement" was less widely accepted as underlying human behavior.[32]

Schedules of reinforcement[edit]

Skinner recognized that behavior is typically reinforced more than once, and, together with C. B. Ferster, he did an extensive analysis of the various ways in which reinforcements could be arranged over time, which he called "schedules of reinforcement".[33]

The most notable schedules of reinforcement studied by Skinner were continuous, interval (fixed or variable) and ratio (fixed or variable). All are methods used in operant conditioning.

  • Continuous reinforcement — each time a specific action is performed the subject receives a reinforcement. This method is usually not a practical way to strengthen behavior, and the reinforced behavior extinguishes relatively quickly.
  • Interval Schedules : based on the time intervals between reinforcements[34]
    • Fixed Interval Schedule (FI) : A procedure in which reinforcements are presented at fixed time periods, provided that the appropriate response is made. This schedule yields a response rate that is low just after reinforcement and becomes rapid just before the next reinforcement is scheduled.
    • Variable Interval Schedule (VI) : A procedure in which behaviour is reinforced after random time durations following the last reinforcement. This schedule yields steady responding at a rate that varies with the average frequency of reinforcement.
  • Ratio Schedules : based on the ratio of responses to reinforcements[34]
    • Fixed Ratio Schedule (FR) : A procedure in which reinforcement is delivered after a specific number of responses have been made.
    • Variable Ratio Schedule (VR) : A procedure in which reinforcement comes after a number of responses that is randomized from one reinforcement to the next (ex. slot machines). The lower the number of responses required, the higher the response rate tends to be.[35]

Scientific inventions[edit]

Operant conditioning chamber[edit]

While a researcher at Harvard,[36] B. F. Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, popularly referred to as the Skinner box,[37] to measure responses of organisms (most often, rats and pigeons) and their orderly interactions with the environment. The box had a lever and a food tray, and a hungry rat could get food delivered to the tray pressing the lever. Skinner observed that when a rat was put in the box, it would wander around, sniffing and exploring, and would usually press the bar by accident, at which point a food pellet would drop into the tray. After that happened, the rate of bar pressing would increase dramatically and remain high until the rat was no longer hungry.

Skinner discovered that consequences for the organism played a large role in how the organism responded in certain situations.[38] For instance, when the rat would pull the lever it would receive food. Subsequently, the rat made frequent pulls on the lever.[39] Negative reinforcement was also exemplified by Skinner placing rats into an electrified chamber that delivered unpleasant shocks. Levers to cut the power were placed inside these boxes. By running a current through the “operant conditioning chamber,” Skinner noticed that the rats, after accidentally pressing the lever in a frantic bid to escape, quickly learned the effects of implementing the lever and consequently used this knowledge to stop the currents both during and prior to electrical shock. These two learned responses are known as Escape Learning and Avoidance Learning.[40] The operant chamber for pigeons involves a plastic disc in which the pigeon pecks in order to open a drawer filled with grains.[41] The Skinner box led to the principle of reinforcement, which is the probability of something occurring based on the consequences of a behavior.[42]

This device was an example of his lifelong ability to invent useful devices, which included whimsical devices in his childhood[43] to the cumulative recorder to measure the rate of response of organisms in an operant chamber. Even in old age, Skinner invented a Thinking Aid to assist in writing.[44]

Cumulative recorder[edit]

Skinner designed the cumulative recorder to record simple, repeated behaviors such as lever-press or key-peck responses. He used it in conjunction with another invention, the operant conditioning chamber. Each response steps a small pen across a wide sheet of paper as the paper slowly moves over a rotating drum; the pen starts at one side and moves toward the other, then quickly resets to the original side. The slope of the resulting line graphically displays the rate of response, the principle measure that Skinner used in the analysis of behavior. [36] Skinner's major experimental exploration of response rates, in the book with C. B. Ferster, "Schedules of Reinforcement", is full of cumulative records produced by this device. [33]

Air crib[edit]

The air crib is an easily cleaned, temperature and humidity-controlled enclosure intended to replace the standard infant crib. [45] Skinner invented the device to help his wife cope with the day-to-day tasks of child rearing. It was designed to make early childcare simpler (by reducing laundry, diaper rash, cradle cap, etc.), while allowing the baby to be more mobile and comfortable, and less prone to cry. Reportedly it had some success in these goals.[46]

The air crib was a controversial invention. It was popularly mischaracterized as a cruel pen, and it was often compared to Skinner's operant conditioning chamber, commonly called the"Skinner Box." This association with laboratory animal experimentation discouraged its commercial success, though several companies attempted production. [46][47]

A 2004 book by Lauren Slater, entitled Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century[48] caused a stir by mentioning the rumors that Skinner had used his baby daughter Deborah in some of his experiments and that she had subsequently committed suicide. Although Slater's book stated that the rumors were false, a reviewer in The Observer in March 2004 misquoted Slater's book as supporting the rumors. This review was read by Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Buzan, an artist and writer living in London) who wrote a vehement riposte in The Guardian.[49]

Teaching machine[edit]

The teaching machine, a mechanical invention to automate the task of programmed instruction

The teaching machine was a mechanical device whose purpose was to administer a curriculum of programmed instruction. In one incarnation, it housed a list of questions, and a mechanism through which the learner could respond to each question. Upon delivering a correct answer, the learner would be rewarded.[50]

Skinner advocated the use of teaching machines for a broad range of students (e.g., preschool aged to adult) and instructional purposes (e.g., reading and music). Another of the multiple machines he envisioned could teach rhythm:

A relatively simple device supplies the necessary contingencies. The student taps a rhythmic pattern in unison with the device. "Unison" is specified very loosely at first (the student can be a little early or late at each tap) but the specifications are slowly sharpened. The process is repeated for various speeds and patterns. In another arrangement, the student echoes rhythmic patterns sounded by the machine, though not in unison, and again the specifications for an accurate reproduction are progressively sharpened. Rhythmic patterns can also be brought under the control of a printed score. (Skinner, 1961. Teaching machines. Scientific American, 205, 90-112. doi:10.2307/1926170, p. 381).

The teaching machine had such instructional potential because it provided immediate and regular reinforcement that maintained students’ interest, as the “material in the machine [was] always novel” (Skinner, 1961, p. 387). In this way, a student’s attention could be maintained without the use of aversive controls. The efficiency of the teaching machine resulted from its automatic provision of reinforcement, individualized pace setting, and a coherent instructional sequence for the student. It engaged students and allowed them to learn by doing.

Teaching machines, though perhaps rudimentary, were not rigid instruments of instruction. They could be adjusted and improved based upon reports of students’ performance. For example, if a student’s report showed numerous incorrect responses, then the machine could be reprogrammed to provide less advanced prompts or questions- the idea being that students acquire behaviors most efficiently when their error rate is minimized. Along these lines, multiple choice formats were not best suited for teaching machines because contingencies of reinforcement would be left to chance; moreover, this format could increase student mistakes and induce erroneous behaviors.

Not only useful in teaching explicit skills, machines could also promote the development of a repertoire of behaviors Skinner called self-management. Self-management refers to how students think- how they attend to the environment with the view of responding appropriately to stimuli. Machines give students the opportunity to first pay attention before receiving a reward as reinforcement. This is in stark contrast with what Skinner noticed as the classroom practice of initially capturing students’ attention (e.g., with a lively video) and delivering a reward (e.g., entertainment) before they have actually done attended- a practice which actually counters the development of self-management and fails to correctly apply reinforcements for correct behavior. What Skinner referred to as a teaching machine would probably be akin to a computer software program today that provided highly structured and incremental instruction. Skinner’s influence on such machines is undeniable. He was the first to pioneer the use of machines in the classroom, especially at the primary level. Today teaching machines such as Language Labs have been incorporated into modern education. Though it was just one of a number of inventions, it embodies much of Skinner’s theory of learning and has wide-reaching implications for education in general and classroom instruction in particular.[51]

There has been a resurgence of interest in the notion of the teaching machine and its relationship to adaptive learning systems of the early 21st Century[52]

Pigeon-guided missile[edit]

Main article: Project Pigeon

The US Navy required a weapon effective against the German Bismarck class battleships. Although missile and TV technology existed, the size of the primitive guidance systems available rendered any weapon ineffective. Project Pigeon[53][54] was potentially an extremely simple and effective solution, but despite an effective demonstration it was abandoned when more conventional solutions became available and in particular the radar system. The project centered on dividing the nose cone of a missile into three compartments, and encasing a pigeon in each. Each compartment used a lens to project an image of what was in front of the missile onto a screen. When the missile was launched from an aircraft within sight of an enemy ship, an image of the ship would appear on the screen. The screen was hinged such that pecks at the image of the ship would guide the missile toward the ship. [55]

Skinner complained "our problem was no one would take us seriously."[56] The point is perhaps best explained in terms of human psychology (i.e., few people would trust a pigeon to guide a missile no matter how reliable it proved).[57]

Verbal summator[edit]

Early in his career Skinner became interested in "latent speech" and experimented with a device he called the "verbal summator."[58] This device can be thought of as an auditory version of the Rorschach inkblots.[58] When using the device, human participants listened to incomprehensible auditory "garbage" but often read meaning into what they heard. Thus, as with the Rorschach blots, the device was intended to yield overt behavior that projected subconscious thoughts. Skinner's interest in projective testing was brief, but he later used observations with the summator in creating his theory of verbal behavior. The device also led other researchers to invent new tests such as the tautophone test, the auditory apperception test, and the Azzageddi test.[59]

Verbal Behavior[edit]

Challenged by Alfred North Whitehead during a casual discussion while at Harvard to provide an account of a randomly provided piece of verbal behavior,[60] Skinner set about attempting to extend his then-new functional, inductive, approach to the complexity of human verbal behavior.[61] Developed over two decades, his work appeared as the culmination of the William James lectures in the book Verbal Behavior. Although Noam Chomsky was highly critical of Verbal Behavior, he conceded that "S-R psychology" (which Skinner's system was most certainly not: operant conditioning consists of a stimulus (or antecedent) (S) emitting a response (R) which then becomes more or less likely in the future dependent upon its consequence (C))[62] was a reason for giving it "a review." Verbal Behavior had an uncharacteristically slow reception, partly as a result of Chomsky's review, paired with Skinner's neglect to address or rebut any of Chomsky's condemnations.[63] Skinner's peers may have been slow to adopt and consider the conventions within Verbal Behavior due to its lack of experimental evidence—unlike the empirical density that marked Skinner's previous work.[64] However, Skinner's functional analysis of verbal behavior has seen a resurgence of interest in applied settings.[65]

Influence on education[edit]

Skinner influenced education as well as psychology in both his ideology and literature. In Skinner’s view, education has two major purposes: (1) to teach repertoires of both verbal and nonverbal behavior; and (2) to encourage students to display an interest in instruction. He endeavored to bring students’ behavior under the control of the environment by reinforcing it only when particular stimuli were present. Because he believed that human behavior could be affected by small consequences, something as simple as “the opportunity to move forward after completing one stage of an activity” could prove reinforcing (Skinner, 1961, p. 380). Skinner favored active learning in the sense that students were not merely passive recipients of information doled out by teachers. He was convinced that a student had to take action; “to acquire behavior, the student must engage in behavior” (Skinner, 1961, p. 389).

Moreover, Skinner was quoted as saying "Teachers must learn how to teach ... they need only to be taught more effective ways of teaching." Skinner asserted that positive reinforcement is more effective at changing and establishing behavior than punishment, with obvious implications for the then widespread practice of rote learning and punitive discipline in education. Skinner also suggests that the main thing people learn from being punished is how to avoid punishment.

In The Technology of Teaching, Skinner has a chapter on why teachers fail (pages 93–113): Essentially he says that teachers have not been given an in-depth understanding of teaching and learning. Without knowing the science underpinning teaching, teachers fall back on procedures that work poorly or not at all, such as:

  • using aversive techniques (which produce escape and avoidance and undesirable emotional effects);
  • relying on telling and explaining ("Unfortunately, a student does not learn simply when he is shown or told." p. 103);
  • failing to adapt learning tasks to the student's current level;
  • failing to provide positive reinforcement frequently enough.

Skinner suggests that any age-appropriate skill can be taught. The steps are

  1. Clearly specify the action or performance the student is to learn to do.
  2. Break down the task into small achievable steps, going from simple to complex.
  3. Let the student perform each step, reinforcing correct actions.
  4. Adjust so that the student is always successful until finally the goal is reached.
  5. Transfer to intermittent reinforcement to maintain the student's performance.

Skinner's views on education are extensively presented in his book The Technology of Teaching. It is also reflected in Fred S. Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and Ogden R. Lindsley's Precision Teaching.

Skinner associated punishment with avoidance. For example, he thought a child may be forced to practice playing his instrument as a form of seemingly productive discipline. This child would then associate practicing with punishment and thus learn to hate and avoid practicing the instrument. Additionally, teachers who use educational activities to punish children could cause inclinations towards rebellious behavior such as vandalism and opposition to education.[66]

Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity[edit]

Skinner is popularly known mainly for his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity for which he made the cover of TIME Magazine.[67] The former describes a visit to a fictional "experimental community"[68] in 1940s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world because of their practice of scientific social planning and use of operant conditioning in the raising of children.

Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden, champions a lifestyle that does not support war or foster competition and social strife. It encourages a lifestyle of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness, satisfying work and leisure.[69] In 1967, Kat Kinkade founded the intentional community Twin Oaks, using Walden Two as a blueprint. The community is still in existence today and continues to use the Planner-Manager system and other aspects of the original book in its self-governance.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner suggests that a technology of behavior could help to make a better society. We would, however, have to accept that an autonomous agent is not the driving force of our actions. Skinner offers alternatives to punishment and challenges his readers to use science and modern technology to construct a better society.

Political views[edit]

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and human science of behavioral control – a technology of human behavior – could help problems unsolved by earlier approaches or aggravated by advances in technology such as the atomic bomb. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.[70] He comprehended political control as aversive or non-aversive, with the purpose to control a population. Skinner supported the use of positive reinforcement as a means of coercion, citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Emile: or, On Education as an example of freedom literature that "did not fear the power of positive reinforcement".[2]

Skinner's book, Walden Two, presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society, which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. Skinner's utopia is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical piece. In his book, Skinner answers the problem that exists in many utopian novels – "What is the Good Life?" In Walden Two, the answer is a life of friendship, health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile contributions to a society in which resources are ensured, in part, by a lack of consumption.

If the world is to save any part of its resources for the future, it must reduce not only consumption but the number of consumers.

—B. F. Skinner,  Walden Two, p. xi.

The world ethos was to be achieved through behavioral technology, which could offer alternatives to coercion,[2] as good science applied correctly would help society,[3] and allow all people to cooperate with each other peacefully.[2] Skinner described his novel as "my New Atlantis", in reference to Bacon's utopia.[71] He opposed corporal punishment in the school, and wrote a letter to the California Senate that helped lead it to a ban on spanking.[72]

When Milton's Satan falls from heaven, he ends in hell. And what does he say to reassure himself? 'Here, at least, we shall be free.' And that, I think, is the fate of the old-fashioned liberal. He's going to be free, but he's going to find himself in hell.

—B. F. Skinner,  from William F. Buckley Jr, On the Firing Line, p. 87.

Superstition in the pigeon[edit]

One of Skinner's experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.[73]

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.[74][75]

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

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.[74]

Modern behavioral psychologists have disputed Skinner's "superstition" explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Subsequent research (e.g. Staddon and Simmelhag, 1971), while finding similar behavior, failed to find support for Skinner's "adventitious reinforcement" explanation for it. By looking at the timing of different behaviors within the interval, Staddon and Simmelhag were able to distinguish two classes of behavior: the terminal response, which occurred in anticipation of food, and interim responses, that occurred earlier in the interfood interval and were rarely contiguous with food. Terminal responses seem to reflect classical (as opposed to operant) conditioning, rather than adventitious reinforcement, guided by a process like that observed in 1968 by Brown and Jenkins in their "autoshaping" procedures. The causation of interim activities (such as the schedule-induced polydipsia seen in a similar situation with rats) also cannot be traced to adventitious reinforcement and its details are still obscure (Staddon, 1977).[76]

This experiment was also repeated on humans, in a less controlled manner, on the popular British TV series Trick or Treat, leading to similar conclusions to those of Skinner.[77]

B.F. Skinner Quotations[edit]

"I do not admire myself as a person. My successes do not override my shortcomings"[78]

"Ethical control may survive in small groups, but the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies"[79]

"It is a mistake to suppose that the whole issue is how to free man. The issue is to improve the way in which he is controlled"[80]

"Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten."[81]

"As the senses grow dull, the stimulating environment becomes less clear. When reinforcing consequences no longer follow, we are bored, discouraged and depressed."[78]


J. E. R. Staddon[edit]

As understood by Skinner, ascribing dignity to individuals involves giving them credit for their actions. To say "Skinner is brilliant" means that Skinner is an originating force. If Skinner's determinist theory is right, he is merely the focus of his environment. He is not an originating force and he had no choice in saying the things he said or doing the things he did. Skinner's environment and genetics both allowed and compelled him to write his book. Similarly, the environment and genetic potentials of the advocates of freedom and dignity cause them to resist the reality that their own activities are deterministically grounded. J. E. R. Staddon (The New Behaviorism, 2001) has argued the compatibilist position; Skinner's determinism is not in any way contradictory to traditional notions of reward and punishment, as he believed.[82]

Noam Chomsky[edit]

Perhaps Skinner's best known critic, Noam Chomsky published a review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior two years after it was published.[83] The 1959 review became better known than the book itself.[84] Chomsky's review has been credited with launching the cognitive movement in psychology and other disciplines. Skinner, who rarely responded directly to critics, never formally replied to Chomsky's critique. Many years later, Kenneth MacCorquodale's reply[85] was endorsed by Skinner.

Chomsky also reviewed Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, using the same basic motives as his Verbal Behavior review. Among Chomsky's criticisms were that Skinner's laboratory work could not be extended to humans, that when it was extended to humans it represented 'scientistic' behavior attempting to emulate science but which was not scientific, that Skinner was not a scientist because he rejected the hypothetico-deductive model of theory testing, and that Skinner had no science of behavior.[86]

Psychodynamic psychology[edit]

Skinner has been repeatedly criticized for his supposed animosity towards Freud, psychoanalysis, and psychodynamic psychology. There is clear evidence, however, that Skinner shared several of Freud's assumptions, and that he was influenced by Freudian points of view in more than one field, among them the analysis of defense mechanisms, such as repression.[87] To study such phenomena, Skinner even designed his own projective test.[88]

TV Guide[edit]

In the controversial books Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) and Walden II (1946/1968), Skinner laid out his vision of utopian society in which behavior was controlled by the judicious application of the principle of reinforcement.[89] In those books, he put forth the simple but stunning claim that our subjective sense of free will is an illusion and that when we think that we are exercising free will, we are actually responding to present and past patterns of reinforcement. We do things in the present that have been rewarding in the past, and our sense of "choosing" to do them is nothing more than an illusion. Skinner argued that his insights could be used to increase human well-being and solve social problems. Not surprisingly, that claim sparked an outcry from critics who believed that Skinner was giving away one of our most cherished attributes − free will − and calling for a repressive society that manipulated people for its own ends. The criticism extended to TV Guide, which featured an interview with Skinner and called his ideas "the taming of mankind through a system of dog obedience schools for all."[citation needed]

List of awards and positions[edit]

  • 1926 A.B., Hamilton College
  • 1930 M.A., Harvard University
  • 1930−1931 Thayer Fellowship
  • 1931 Ph.D., Harvard University
  • 1931−1932 Walker Fellowship
  • 1931−1933 National Research Council Fellowship
  • 1933−1936 Junior Fellowship, Harvard Society of Fellows*1936-1937 Instructor, University of Minnesota
  • 1937−1939 Assistant Professor, University of Minnesota
  • 1939−1945 Associate Professor, University of Minnesota
  • 1942 Guggenheim Fellowship (postponed until 1944-1945)
  • 1942 Howard Crosby Warren Medal, Society of Experimental Psychologists
  • 1945−1948 Professor and Chair, Indiana University
  • 1947−1948 William James Lecturer, Harvard University
  • 1948−1958 Professor, Harvard University
  • 1949−1950 President of the Midwestern Psychological Association
  • 1954−1955 President of the Eastern Psychological Association
  • 1958 Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, American Psychological Association
  • 1958−1974 Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology, Harvard University
  • 1964−1974 Career Award, National Institute of Mental Health
  • 1966 Edward Lee Thorndike Award, American Psychological Association
  • 1966−1967 President of the Pavlovian Society of North America
  • 1968 National Medal of Science, National Science Foundation
  • 1969 Overseas Fellow in Churchill College, Cambridge
  • 1971 Gold Medal Award, American Psychological Foundation
  • 1971 Joseph P. Kennedy, Jr., Foundation for Mental Retardation International award
  • 1972 Humanist of the Year, American Humanist Association
  • 1972 Creative Leadership in Education Award, New York University
  • 1972 Career Contribution Award, Massachusetts Psychological Association
  • 1974−1990 Professor of Psychology and Social Relations Emeritus, Harvard University
  • 1978 Distinguished Contributions to Educational Research Award and Development, American Educational Research Association
  • 1978 National Association for Retarded Citizens Award
  • 1985 Award for Excellence in Psychiatry, Albert Einstein School of Medicine
  • 1985 President's Award, New York Academy of Science
  • 1990 William James Fellow Award, American Psychological Society
  • 1990 Lifetime Achievement Award, American Psychology Association
  • 1991 Outstanding Member and Distinguished Professional Achievement Award, Society for Performance Improvement
  • 1997 Scholar Hall of Fame Award, Academy of Resource and Development

Honorary degrees[edit]

Skinner received honorary degrees from:

In popular culture[edit]

Writer of The Simpsons Jon Vitti named Principal Skinner character after behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner.[90]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Smith, L. D.; Woodward, W. R. (1996). B. F. Skinner and behaviorism in American culture. Bethlehem, PA: Lehigh University Press. ISBN 0-934223-40-8. 
  2. ^ a b c d Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden Two.  The science of human behavior is used to eliminate poverty, sexual expression, government as we know it, create a lifestyle without that such as war.
  3. ^ a b Skinner, B. F. (1972). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-553-14372-7. OCLC 34263003. 
  4. ^ https://behavioranalysishistory.pbworks.com/w/page/2039033/Skinner%2C%20Burrhus%20Frederic
  5. ^ Muskingum.edu
  6. ^ Schacter, Daniel L., and Gilbert Daniel. (2011). Psychology. (2 ed.). New York, 2011. Web. 22 Mar. 2013.
  7. ^ Schacter, Daniel (2009, 2011). Psychology Second Edition. United States of America: Worth Publishers. p. 17. ISBN 978-1-4292-3719-2.  Check date values in: |date= (help)
  8. ^ Schacter D, L., Gilbert D, T., & Wegner D, M. (2011)
  9. ^ B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism
  10. ^ See Verbal Behavior for research citations.
  11. ^ B. F. Skinner, (1938) The Behavior of Organisms.
  12. ^ C. B. Ferster & B. F. Skinner, (1957) Schedules of Reinforcement.
  13. ^ Haggbloom, Steven J.; et al., Renee; Warnick, Jason E.; Jones, Vinessa K.; Yarbrough, Gary L.; Russell, Tenea M.; Borecky, Chris M.; McGahhey, Reagan et al. (2002). "The 100 most eminent psychologists of the 20th century". Review of General Psychology 6 (2): 139–152. doi:10.1037/1089-2680.6.2.139. 
  14. ^ Lafayette.edu, accessed on 5-20-07.
  15. ^ BFSkinner.org, Smith Morris Bibliography
  16. ^ "Within a year I had gone to Miss Graves to tell her that I no longer believed in God. 'I know,' she said, 'I have been through that myself.' But her strategy misfired: I never went through it." B.F. Skinner, pp. 387-413, E.G. Boring and G. Lindzey's A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 5), New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1967.
  17. ^ a b c B.F. Skinner: A Life [Paperback]. by Daniel W. Bjork, ISBN 9781557984166: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 04 June 2013.
  18. ^ B. F. Skinner: a Life. 
  19. ^ "Humanist Manifesto II". American Humanist Association. Retrieved October 9, 2012. 
  20. ^ Skinner, Deborah. "About". Horses by Skinner. Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  21. ^ Buzan, Deborah Skinner (12 March 2004). "I was not a lab rat". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 September 2014. 
  22. ^ http://www.humanistsofutah.org/humanists/bfskinner.html
  23. ^ Bjork, D.W. (1993). B.F. Skinner, A Life. New York: Basic Books.
  24. ^ "Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (1904 - 1990).". Credo Reference, Topic Pages. Credo Reference, Gale. Retrieved 1 October 2013. 
  25. ^ About Behaviorism Ch. 1 Causes of Behaviour § 3 Radical Behaviorism B. F. Skinner 1974 ISBN 0-394-71618-3
  26. ^ ibid. pp. 18−20 of the paperback edition which had the redacted typo s/it/is/.
  27. ^ Skinner, B.F. (1938). Behavior of Organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts. 
  28. ^ Pavlov, I. P. (1927). Conditioned Reflexes. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press. 
  29. ^ Thorndike, E. L. (1911). Animal Intelligence: Experimental Studies. New York: Macmillan. 
  30. ^ Jenkins, H.M. "Animal Learning and Behavior", Ch. 5, in Hearst, E. "The First Century of Experimental Psychology" (1979) Erlbaum: Hillsdale, N. J. }
  31. ^ Skinner, B. F. Science and Human Behavior (1953) New York: Macmillan
  32. ^ Skinner, B.F (31 July 1981). "Selection by Consequences". Science 213 (4507): 501–504. Bibcode:1981Sci...213..501S. doi:10.1126/science.7244649. PMID 7244649. Archived from the original on 2 July 2010. Retrieved 14 August 2010. 
  33. ^ a b Ferster, C. B. and Skinner, B. F. Schedules of Reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957
  34. ^ a b Psychology 2nd Edition
  35. ^ Daniel L. Schacter, Daniel T. Gilbert, Daniel M. Wegner.(2011).Schedules of Reinforcement. Psychology second edition.
  36. ^ a b Thorne, B. M., & Henley, T. B. (2001). Connections in the history and systems of psychology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  37. ^ Popplestone, J. A., & McPherson, M. W. (1994). An illustrated history of American psychology (2nd ed.). Akron, OH: The University of Akron Press.
  38. ^ Benjamin, L. T. (2007). A brief history of modern psychology. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
  39. ^ Thorne, B. M., & Henley, T. B. (2001).Connections in the history and systems of psychology. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company.
  40. ^ See B.F. Skinner: A Life for research citations.
  41. ^ Edward K, Fancher, R.(1995). B. F. Skinner: A Life-Two Views. Contemporary Psychology: A journal of Reviews. 40(8): 727−727.
  42. ^ Thorne, B. M., & Henley, T. B. (2001)
  43. ^ B. F. Skinner, (1984) Particulars of My Life. Devices included a potato shooting machine and a perpetual motion machine, as well as a device to separate ripe from unripe berries.
  44. ^ Skinner, B. F. (1987). "A thinking aid". Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis 20 (4): 379–380. doi:10.1901/jaba.1987.20-379. PMC 1286077. PMID 16795707. 
  45. ^ http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/06/what-man-can-make-of-man/308973/ Air-crib photograph] in "What Man Can Make of Man", by James Bennet. The Atlantic, June 2012.
  46. ^ a b Snopes.com "One Man and a Baby Box", accessed on 12-29-07.
  47. ^ "Burrhus Fredrick Skinner". Skinner, Burrhus Frederic (1904 - 1990). Gale, Credo Reference. Retrieved 1 October 2013. 
  48. ^ Slater, L. (2004) Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, London, Bloomsbury
  49. ^ Buzan, Deborah Skinner (12 March 2004). "I was not a lab rat". The Guardian. Retrieved 29 May 2012. 
  50. ^ "Programmed Instruction and Task Analysis". College of Education, University of Houston. 
  51. ^ Skinner, B. F. (1961). "Why we need teaching machines". Harvard Educational Review 31: 377–398. 
  52. ^ Philip McRae, Ph.D.
  53. ^ Skinner, B. F. (1960). Pigeons in a pelican. American Psychologist, 15, 28−37. Reprinted in: Skinner, B. F. (1972). Cumulative record (3rd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,pp. 574−591.
  54. ^ Described throughout Skinner, B. F. (1979). The shaping of a behaviorist: Part two of an autobiography. New York: Knopf.
  55. ^ "Nose Cone, Pigeon-Guided Missile". National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Archived from the original on 16 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  56. ^ "Skinner's Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?". TIME Magazine. September 20, 1971. 
  57. ^ Richard Dawkins. "Design for a Faith-Based Missile". Free Inquiry magazine 22 (1).  The project was also featured by "Top secret weapons revealed". Military Channel. 2012-08-14. 
  58. ^ a b Skinner, B. F. (1936). "The Verbal Summator and a Method for the Study of Latent Speech". Journal of Psychology 2 (1): 71–107. doi:10.1080/00223980.1936.9917445. 
  59. ^ Rutherford, A., B. F. Skinner and the auditory inkblot: The rise and fall of the verbal summator as a projective technique, History of Psychology, 2003,4,362-378.
  60. ^ B. F. Skinner, (1957) Verbal Behavior. The account in the appendix is that he asked Skinner to explain why he said "No black scorpion,Carter is falling upon this table."
  61. ^ "Skinner, Burrhus Frederick(1904 - 1990).". Credo Reference, Gale. Credo Reference, Gale. Retrieved 1 October 2013. 
  62. ^ A. N. Chomsky, (1957) "A Review of BF Skinner's Verbal Behavior." in the preface, 2nd paragraph
  63. ^ Richelle, M. (1993). B. F. Skinner: A reappraisal. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
  64. ^ Michael, J. (1984). "Verbal behavior". Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior 42 (3): 363–376. doi:10.1901/jeab.1984.42-363. PMC 1348108. PMID 16812395. 
  65. ^ The Analysis of Verbal Behavior (Journal)
  66. ^ Holland, J. (1992). B.F Skinner. Pittsburgh: American Psychologist.
  67. ^ "B.F. Skinner Sep. 20, 1971." http://www.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19710920,00.html. Web.
  68. ^ B. F. Skinner, (1968). "The Design of Experimental Communities", International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Volume 16). New York: Macmillan, 1968, pages 271-275.
  69. ^ Ramsey, Richard David, Morning Star: The Values-Communication of Skinner's Walden Two, Ph.D. dissertation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, December 1979, available from University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI. Attempts to analyze Walden Two, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and other Skinner works in the context of Skinner's life; lists over 500 sources.
  70. ^ see Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1974 for example
  71. ^ A matter of Consequences, p. 412.
  72. ^ Asimov, Nanette (1996-01-30). "Spanking Debate Hits Assembly". SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle). Retrieved 2008-03-02. 
  73. ^ ECON 252, Lecture 8 by Professor Robert Schiller at Yale University
  74. ^ a b Skinner, B. F. "'Superstition' in the Pigeon," Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947.
  75. ^ Classics in the History of Psychology — Skinner (1948)
  76. ^ Timberlake & Lucas, (1985) "JEAB"
  77. ^ "Derren Brown: Trick or Treat - 4oD". Channel 4. Retrieved 2012-11-07. 
  78. ^ a b Journal of Humanistic Psychology Spring 1991 vol. 31 no. 2 112-113
  79. ^ Beyond Freedom and Dignity, New York: Knopf, 1971 p. 155
  80. ^ "I have been misunderstood" An interview with B.F.Skinner 1972 March/April Center Magazine, pp. 63−65
  81. ^ New methods and new aims in teaching, B.F. Skinner, New Scientist, May 1964, No. 392, pp. 484
  82. ^ Staddon, J. (1995) On responsibility and punishment. The Atlantic Monthly, Feb., 88−94. Staddon, J. (1999) On responsibility in science and law. Social Philosophy and Policy, 16, 146-174. Reprinted in Responsibility. E. F. Paul, F. D. Miller, & J. Paul (eds.), 1999. Cambridge University Press, pp. 146−174.
  83. ^ Chomsky, Noam (1959). "Reviews: Verbal behavior by B. F. Skinner". Language 35 (1): 26–58. JSTOR 411334. 
  84. ^ B. F. Skinner, (1970) "On 'Having' A Poem" talks about the poem, its publication, and contains the poem and a reply to it as well. Real Audio mp3 Ogg
  85. ^ On Chomsky's Review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior
  86. ^ A. N. Chomsky, (1972) "The Case Against B. F. Skinner."
  87. ^ Toates, F. (2009). Burrhus F. Skinner: The shaping of behavior. Houndmills, Basingstoke, England: Palgrave Macmillan. 
  88. ^ Rutherford, A. (2003). "B. F. Skinner and the auditory inkblot: The rise and fall of the verbal summator as a projective technique". History of Psychology 6 (4): 362–378. doi:10.1037/1093-4510.6.4.362. 
  89. ^ beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Bantam Books.
  90. ^ Reiss, Mike. (2002). Commentary for "Principal Charming", in The Simpsons: The Complete Second Season [DVD]. 20th Century Fox.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chiesa, M. (2004).Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science ISBN
  • Epstein, R. (1997) Skinner as self-manager. Journal of applied behavior analysis. 30, 545-569. Retrieved from the World Wide Web on: June 2, 2005 from ENVMED.rochester.edu
  • Pauly, Philip Joseph (1987). Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-504244-1. Retrieved 14 August 2010. 
  • Sundberg, M.L. (2008) The VB-MAPP: The Verbal Behavior Milestones Assessment and Placement Program
  • Basil-Curzon, L. (2004) Teaching in Further Education: A outline of Principles and Practice
  • Hardin, C.J. (2004) Effective Classroom Management
  • Kaufhold, J. A. (2002) The Psychology of Learning and the Art of Teaching
  • Bjork, D. W. (1993) B. F. Skinner: A Life
  • Dews, P. B. (Ed.)(1970) Festschrift For B. F. Skinner.New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Evans, R. I. (1968) B. F. Skinner: the man and his ideas
  • Nye, Robert D. (1979) What Is B. F. Skinner Really Saying?. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall.
  • Rutherford, A. (2009) Beyond the box: B. F. Skinner's technology of behavior from laboratory to life, 1950s-1970s.. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Sagal, P. T. (1981) Skinner's Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1976) Particulars of my life: Part 1 of an Autobiography
  • Skinner, B. F. (1979) The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part 2 of an Autobiography
  • Skinner, B. F. (1983) A Matter of Consequences: Part 3 of an Autobiography
  • Smith, D. L. (2002). On Prediction and Control. B. F. Skinner and the Technological Ideal of Science. In W. E. Pickren & D. A. Dewsbury, (Eds.), Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Swirski, Peter (2011) "How I Stopped Worrying and Loved Behavioural Engineering or Communal Life, Adaptations, and B.F. Skinner's Walden Two". American Utopia and Social Engineering in Literature, Social Thought, and Political History. New York, Routledge.
  • Wiener, D. N. (1996) B. F. Skinner: benign anarchist
  • Wolfgang, C.H. and Glickman, Carl D. (1986) Solving Discipline Problems Allyn and Bacon, Inc

External links[edit]