Having made contributions that were as profound as they were practical, Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner was one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century. Born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, he developed an early penchant for inventing and experimenting, was a keen observer of biology and behavior, and read Francis Bacon. With an emerging intellectual independence, he entered Hamilton College in 1922 as an English major, but he bristled at its social conventions and institutional constraints. Encouraged by Robert Frost, he began a career as a writer, but writing failed him in that it didn’t make a difference in Progressive, modernist America.
While he was writing, though, he was reading. Bertrand Russell was praising John B. Watson’s behaviorism and Sinclair Lewis was extolling life in science. The latter resonated with what Skinner had read in biology at Hamilton: Jacques Loeb’s insistence that experimentation was the foundation of knowledge. When Skinner sought advice about psychology, his professors directed him to Ivan P. Pavlov and Harvard University. After deciding on Harvard, he continued to read. Pavlov was demonstrating the importance of experimental control, H. G. Wells was promoting science over the humanities for understanding behavior, and Watson was promoting behaviorism in ways that appealed to Skinner’s growing iconoclasm.
The Shaping of a Behaviorist
Skinner arrived at Harvard in 1928 and found a psychology department more aligned with structuralist theories of mind than a science of behavior. He turned to William J. Crozier’s Department of General Physiology, which engaged Loeb’s science. With support from his colleague, Fred S. Keller, Skinner began several lines of research to demonstrate the lawfulness of behavior on which the environment acted—reflex behavior (e.g., food elicits salivation in dogs). This was Pavlov’s science. What emerged, though, were new apparatus (e.g., the Skinner box) and a preparation that revealed the lawfulness in behavior that acted on the environment—instrumental behavior (e.g., bar pressing by rats is reinforced by food). This science in which cause was unmediated functional relations, influenced by Ernst Mach, would be Skinner’s science.
Skinner received his Ph.D. in 1931, but remained at Harvard on fellowships, where he distinguished between respondent and operant behavior, and conducted research on the latter. He was influenced by Percy W. Bridgman, who taught him about operationalizing his terms, and by reading Charles S. Peirce, who inclined him toward hard-nosed philosophical pragmatism (e.g., truth as successful working). Skinner moved to the University of Minnesota as an instructor in 1936 and, that fall, married Yvonne (Eve) Blue from Flossmoor, Illinois. Their first child, Julie, was born in 1938, the same year he published The Behavior of Organisms. This seminal account of his experimental analysis of behavior is among his most important contributions to psychology and was the foundation of a new discipline—behavior analysis.
Style and Content of Science
In Skinner’s style of science, knowledge was based on description, prediction, and experimental control. Experimental control was established through the discovery and demonstration of functional relations between independent and dependent variables. The discovery and demonstration of these relations were the process and product of within-individual experimental analysis. Irreducible functional relations were science’s basic principles. And theory was their systematic integration. Skinner uniquely extended this style to behavior as a subject matter in its own right. The content of his science was the principles of operant behavior. In 1938, these included conditioning and extinction, primary and secondary reinforcement and punishment, response differentiation and induction, stimulus control and generalization, and motivating operations. These principles remain fundamental in psychology.
Extensions and Applications
From the beginning, Skinner saw that science could be extended beyond the basic principles to interpret everyday behavior and applied to behavior of societal importance. His first interpretation concerned verbal behavior, which resulted in 1957 in what he considered his most important book—Verbal Behavior. This work was later applied to communication training for children with autism. At Minnesota, he extended his research to behavioral genetics and conducted seminal research in behavioral pharmacology. He also engineered behavior, training a rat to pull a chain that released a marble the rat then dropped down a tube to produce food. This demonstrated the practical effectiveness of reinforcement, simulated symbolic behavior, and was a microcosm of a token economy. During World War II, he engaged in military research, training pigeons to guide simulated bombs to precise destinations. This inspired his students, Keller and Marian Breland, to apply his science to commercial animal training.
In the 1940s, Skinner turned to human behavior. He invented a “baby tender” (i.e., a raised, enclosed, mobile space for playing and sleeping, with a full front window and shade, air filter, heating and humidity controls, and a roll of sheets for the bedding) for Eve and their second child, Deborah (b. 1944), to make infant care easier and enhance his daughter’s well-being. Although it was a contribution to domestic engineering, Skinner conducted no experiments with it. He also wrote a novel, Walden Two, in which he described a community’s use of his science to improve its cultural practices (e.g., childrearing, education, labor, and environmental stewardship). The book was not intended to be a blueprint for particular practices, however, because Skinner believed that communities should take an empirical approach to discovering effective, acceptable practices. Experimentation was constant; practices were contingent.
In 1945, Skinner moved to Indiana University as a full professor and chairperson of the psychology department. By then, he had formulated a philosophy of his science—radical behaviorism: Psychology referred to behavioral functioning, both public and private, and nothing more. In addition, he criticized theories of human behavior based in folk psychology, not science; social sciences that established facts, not functional relations between them; and applied psychology that focused on correlations instead of experimentation.
A Matter of Consequences
Skinner returned to Harvard in 1948 and established a pigeon laboratory. His pigeon research resulted in his 1957 compendium with Charles Ferster, Schedules of Reinforcement. He published Science and Human Behavior in 1953, which provided interpretations of individual behavior (e.g., self-control and thinking), social interactions (e.g., aggression), and cultural practices (e.g., education and government), and described how to change them. This work provided a foundation for applications in behavior therapy and applied behavior analysis.
In the early 1950s, Skinner began two lines of research with collaborators that extended his science to education and psychiatric patients. Skinner invented teaching machines, created programmed instruction, and described classroom applications, which resulted in his 1968 book, The Technology of Teaching. He critiqued psychoanalysis and suggested how his science could be integrated with biological approaches to psychopathology. He also addressed ethical issues in the control of human behavior. In a debate with Carl Rogers, for instance, he argued that values do not mediate behavior—they specify rein-forcers; that choice was not free—it was lawful; and that the fear of control was impeding science-based applications. These issues engaged Skinner throughout the 1960s, and resulted in his controversial 1970 book, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which made him a public intellectual.
Skinner retired from Harvard as a professor emeritus in 1974, the same year he published About Behaviorism, an overview of his system. He remained active, however. He integrated his science with biology; conducted simulation research on cognition; addressed utopian and philosophical implications of his science; and wrote about language and consciousness. He also offered advice about intellectual self-management in a 1983 book with M. E. Vaughan, Enjoy Old Age; contended with ethical issues in the use of punishment; criticized psychology’s mediational theories of mind; and addressed international conflict and peace.
Skinner died of leukemia on August 18, 1990, just after receiving the last of his many awards—the American Psychological Association’s first award for a Lifetime Contribution to Psychology. His contributions were unique. His philosophy of science came from science, not philosophy. His science was grounded in experimental control, not predictions from theory. His extensions took science beyond the basic principles and his interpretations were based on and constrained by those principles. His applications were demonstrations of experimental control in solving societal problems. These applications, in turn, strengthened the validity of his philosophy, science, extensions, and interpretations. Skinner was a systematic psychologist.
- Bjork, D. W. (1993). B. F. Skinner: A life. New York: Basic Books.
- Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.
- Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden two. New York: Macmillan.
- Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
- Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
- Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Knopf.
- Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Knopf.
- Skinner, B. F. (1999). Cumulative record (definitive ed.; V. G. Lates & A. C. Catania, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: B. F. Skinner Foundation.
- Skinner, B. F., & Vaughan, M. E. (1983). Enjoy old age: A program of self management. New York: Norton.