Charles Ferster

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Charles Bohris Ferster
CB Ferster circa1972.jpg
C.B. Ferster (circa 1972)
Born(1922-11-01)November 1, 1922
DiedFebruary 3, 1981(1981-02-03) (aged 58)
Alma materColumbia University
Known forBehavior analysis, Schedules of reinforcement
Spouse(s)Marilyn Ferster
Elyce Zenoff Ferster
Scientific career
InstitutionsGeorgetown University
American University

Charles Bohris Ferster (1922–1981) was an American behavioral psychologist. A pioneer in the field of applied behavior analysis, he developed errorless learning and was a colleague of B.F. Skinner's at Harvard University, co-authoring the book Schedules of Reinforcement (1957).


Ferster obtained his bachelor's degree at Rutgers University in 1947 before receiving his master's and Ph.D. from Columbia University in 1948 and 1950, respectively. He then worked as a colleague with B. F. Skinner at Harvard University, co-founding the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior (JEAB) in 1958, where he pioneered errorless learning for the treatment of animals, and used behavior modification therapy for clients with depression and obesity. Also serving as an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University School of Medicine from 1957 to 1962, Ferster employed errorless learning to instruct young autistic children how to speak.[1]

His work also became the basis for the studies published by renowned researchers, such as Donald M. Baer and Sidney Bijou, both of whom founded the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis at the University of Kansas. Akin to Baer and Bijou, O. Ivar Lovaas was a well-known researcher who applied Ferster's procedures to autistic children at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and developed early intensive behavioral intervention (EIBI), or 6.5 hours per day of what he called, "discrete trial training" (DTT).

Early childhood and family life[edit]

Ferster was born November 1, 1922 in Freehold, New Jersey, the second son of Julius B. and Molly Madwin Ferster.

He was married to Marilyn Ferster, with whom he had four children—Bill, Andrea, Sam and Warren. He later married Elyce Zenoff Ferster, a professor of law at George Washington University,

Ferster died on February 3, 1981 at the age of 58 in Washington, D.C.[2]



  • 1940–1943 Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ)
  • 1943–1946 Military Service
  • 1946–1947 Rutgers University (New Brunswick, NJ) (B.S, 1947)
  • 1947–1950 Columbia University (New York, NY) (M.A., 1948; Ph.D, 1950)

Post-doctoral professional affiliations

Professional life[edit]

Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior

Laboratory work[edit]

The Skinner box is not a specific technique, but rather a method of research employing the free operant. The use of the free operant is a method of wide generality; it refers to any apparatus that generates a response which takes a short time to occur and leaves the animal in the same place ready to respond again. The free operant is used in experiments when the main dependent variable is the frequency of occurrence of behavior. Nearly all the problems of a science of behavior fit this paradigm when the questions are of the form: what is the likelihood of a piece of behavior occurring on this particular occasion; how strong is the tendency to behave on this occasion relative to another occasion? The free operant has advantages in this respect, because it removes restrictions on the frequency with which a response can occur and permits the observation of moment-to-moment changes in frequency.

C.B. Ferster, The use of the free operant in the analysis of behavior, 1953 Psychological Bulletin, 50, 263-274.

Meanwhile I had set up a pigeon laboratory in which Charles Ferster and I worked very happily together for more than 5 years. It was the high point in my research history. Scarcely a week went by without some exciting discovery. Perhaps the behavior we dealt with most effectively was our own. Near the end of our collaboration we found ourselves with a vast quantity of unanalyzed and unpublished data, and we proceeded to design an environment in which we could scarcely help writing a book. In it we both worked as we had never worked before. In one spring term and one long hot summer we wrote a text and a glossary and prepared over 1000 figures, more than 900 of which were published.

B.F. Skinner, (Untitled Article) [4]

I don’t remember any experiment being called ‘‘great’’ or ‘‘bad’’ or anyone being given credit for doing something especially useful or valuable. Some experiments led to further planning, new apparatus, exciting conversations, new theoretical arrangements of data and procedures or a rush to tell everyone about them, while others enabled less behavior of this kind. I don’t know whether Skinner was conscious of the lack of personal praise in interpersonal relations in the laboratory. I certainly was not. My behavior was generated by the natural reinforcement of the laboratory activity. But some of the graduate students found the absence of personal support difficult.

C.B. Ferster (1970). Schedules of reinforcement with Skinner. In P. B. Dews (Ed.), Festschrift for B. F. Skinner (pp. 37–46 at 43). New York: Irvington.

Application of the theory[edit]

  • Linwood Project
  • Individualized Instruction at Georgetown, American Universities
  • The University Learning Center at American University: this represented a radical experiment in undergraduate, interdisciplinary education in which the principles of operant behavior were directly applied. The center itself—an open, free-flowing physical space on campus—was conceived of as the "chamber" in which instruction and learning occurred. The environment adhered in obvious ways to such cornerstone concepts as immediate positive reinforcement, successive approximation, schedules of reinforcement, discriminative stimuli and the like. Professors of Psychology, Physics, Anthropology, Psychiatry, Sociology, Philosophy, Mathematics staffed the Learning Center, as did many graduate students in these fields.

Social and professional network[edit]

Following is a partial list of professional colleagues and friends of Charles Ferster; those interested in behaviorism, operant conditioning, and human behavior more generally may be interested in these people and their work:

Margaret J. Rioch, David McK. Rioch, John L. Cameron, James Dinsmoor, Douglas G. Anger, James E. Anliker, Donald S. Blough, Richard J. Herrnstein, Alfredo V. Lagmay, William H. Morse, Nathan H. Azrin, Ogden R. Lindsley, Lewis R. Gollub, Matthew L. Israel, Harlan L. Lane, George S. Reynolds, A. Charles Catania, Herbert S. Terrace, Neil J. Peterson. William N. Schoenfeld

Written works[edit]


  • Schedules of Reinforcement, with B.F. Skinner, 1957 ISBN 0-13-792309-0.
  • An Introduction to the Science of Human Behavior, with Nurnberger, J. I. & Brady, J. P., 1963
  • Behavior Principles, with Mary Carol Perott, 1968; (Second Edition 1981, with Stuart A. Culbertson)


  • Arbitrary and Natural Reinforcement 1967, The Psychological Record, 22, 1-16
  • An Experimental Analysis of Clinical Phenomena 1972, The Psychological Record, 22, 1-16 [citation incorrect]
  • Clinical Reinforcement 1972, Seminars in Psychiatry, 4(2), 110-111
  • A Laboratory Model of Psychotherapy 1979, In P. Sjoden (Ed), Trends in Behavior Therapy. New York, Academic Press
  • Psychotherapy from the standpoint of a behaviorist, 1972, In J.D. Keehn (Ed.), Psychopathology in Animals: research and clinical implications. New York, Academic Press
  • The Autistic Child[citation needed]
  • Positive Reinforcement and Behavioral Deficits of Autistic Children, Child Development 1961, 32:437-456
  • The use of the free operant in the analysis of behavior, 1953 Psychological Bulletin, 50, 263-274.
  • The Development of Performances in Autistic Children in an Automatically Controlled Environment, Charles B. Ferster, Marian K. DeMyer, Journal of Chronic Diseases 1961 Apr; 13:312-4
  • A functional analysis of depression, American Psychologist 1973, 857-870.
  • The control of eating, In J. P. Foreyt (Ed.), Behavioral treatments of obesity (pp. 309–326). Oxford: Pergamon Press. Ferster, C. B., Nurnberger, J. I. & Levitt, E. E. (1977).



  1. ^ New York Times Staff (February 8, 1981). "Charles B. Ferster, 58; Psychology Researcher". The New York Times. Retrieved January 6, 2018.
  2. ^ Obituary: Charles B. Ferster (1922-1981). Dinsmoor, James A. American Psychologist. Vol. 37 (2), Feb 1982, 235.
  3. ^
  4. ^

External links[edit]