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B.F. Skinner

BF Skinner (JPG) Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on 20 March 1904 in the small railroading town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.1 Concerning [his mother’s] strict notions of propriety, Skinner wrote: “I was taught to fear God, the police, and what people will think. As a result, I usually do what I have to do with no great struggle” [B. F. Skinner, Autobiography in G. E. Boring and Gardner Lindzey, eds., A History of Psychology in Autobiography, Vol 5 (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1967), pp. 387-413, see p. 407].2

Skinner published his first literary work at age ten, a poem entitled “That Pessimistic Fellow,” in the Lone Scout magazine. Unpublished works written during high school included a morality play featuring the characters Greed, Gluttony, Jealousy, and Youth and a melodramatic novel about a young naturalist’s love affair with the daughter of a dying trapper. Skinner did well academically, and in 1922 became his family’s first college man as a freshman at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York.

At Hamilton, Skinner took some biology courses and a philosophy course,…but no psychology. He majored in English and wrote regularly for the college newspaper, literary magazine, and humor magazine — adopting the pen name of Sir Burrhus de Beerus for the last. An inveterate practical joker, he helped spread a false rumor that Charlie Chaplin was going to speak on campus.… As a senior, Skinner publicly parodied the speech teacher, subverted the traditional oratory competition by submitting a farcical speech, and decorated the hall for class day exercises with less than complimentary caricatures of the faculty.3

Skinner and others developed the learning theory known as operant (or instrumental) conditioning, in which the stimulus follows the behavior, as opposed to classical conditioning, in which the stimulus always precedes the behavior.4 For example, classical conditioning is a passive process. When a reflex occurs, conditioning apparently doesn’t require you to do anything.… Instrumental conditioning, in contrast, is an active process (cf. Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts). The events that define it begin with a behavior on your part (even if the “behavior” is the chosen act of remaining still).5

Skinner used two other tools in his operant conditioning to learning. One was the procedure called shaping, that is, using reward to guide the subjects natural behavior toward the desired behavior gradually. The other tool was changing the emphasis from rewards to reinforcers.

There are two kinds of reinforcers.6 For humans, a positive reinforcer is approval, attention, money, or promotion, for example. A negative reinforcer for a rat is an electric shock that is stopped, thus becoming a reward. In humans, withdrawal of approval by parents may make a child study harder and get better grades. The basis of reinforcement is that whether a positive or a negative reinforcement is used, it strengthens the behavior of the laboratory animal or human.7

Pigeon in a Skinner box (JPG) Skinner recognized the critical importance of constancy of conditions in his experiments and developed the instrumental conditioning chamber or ‘Skinner box’ (more pics).8 A Skinner box typically contains one or more levers which an animal can press, one or more stimulus lights and one or more places in which reinforcers like food can be delivered. The animal’s presses on the levers can be detected and recorded and a contingency between these presses, the state of the stimulus lights and the delivery of reinforcement can be set up, all automatically. It is also possible to deliver other reinforcers such as water or to deliver punishers like electric shock through the floor of the chamber. Other types of response can be measured — nose-poking at a moving panel, or hopping on a treadle — both often used when testing birds rather than rats. And of course all kinds of discriminative stimuli may be used.9

Skinner read a book in which the philosopher Bertrand Russell, one of his favorite writers, discussed John B. Watson’s recently published Behaviorism critically but seriously. “I do not fundamentally agree with [Watson’s] view,” wrote Russell, “but I think it contains much more truth than most people suppose, and I regard it as desirable to develop the behaviourist method to the fullest possible extent” [B. F. Skinner, Particulars of My Life (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1959), quoted, p. 298]. Intrigued, Skinner read Watson as well as the recently translated Pavlov, liked what he read, and began to suspect that behavioristic analyses might just be able to account for many of those “whys” of behavior that were missing in literature.

A symbolic turning point occurred when Skinner read an article by H. G. Wells about Pavlov and the famous British writer George Bernard Shaw. The irascible and colorful Shaw had greatly disliked Pavlov’s writings, and had sarcastically described the Russian as a scoundrel and vivisectionist with the habit of boiling babies alive just to see what would happen. Wells expressed admiration for both men and posed a hypothetical question: Pavlov and Shaw are drowning on opposite sides of a pier and you have but one life belt to throw in the water; to which side would you throw it? Skinner instantly knew that his choice would be for Pavlov, and further resolved to go to graduate school and become a behavioristic psychologist. He applied and was accepted at Harvard, for the autumn of 1928.10

Watson, in a manifesto entitled, “Psychology as the Behaviorist Views It” (1913), had already enunciated the credo: “Do away with introspection! Psychology must be objective! Most human behavior can be explained on the basis of conditioning! Psychologists should study the behavior of simple animals, from which all necessary principles can be derived to apply to human beings! The goal of psychology is not the understanding of experience but the prediction and control of behavior!”

Pavlov had shown that dogs could be conditioned to respond to a stimulus (e.g., to salivate to the ringing of a bell) by pairing it with another stimulus (e.g., food) to which they would instinctively respond, and Watson, in his “little Albert” experiment, had shown that a human infant could be similarly conditioned. Now it would be up to Skinner to enlarge upon their work and see how far this line of investigation could lead.

In December of his first year at Harvard, he had written, “I have almost gone over to physiology, which I find fascinating. But my fundamental interests lie in the field of psychology, and I shall probably continue therein, even, if necessary, by making over the entire field to suit myself” (The Shaping of a Behaviorist, 1979, p. 38).11

To discover and prove that so-called free behavior in rats is really a function of an external condition might be exciting to anyone; but to Skinner the hope that this would lead to proof that free will and conscious (or unconscious) choice in human beings were no less the results of external conditions was what a later generation would call “mind blowing.” He was gripped by the possibilities of his experiments as any inspired genius, and the drive — or compulsion — to extend the behaviorist view to the very limits of its applicability was never to diminish.12

During World War II, Skinner conducted a series of experiments in which he trained sets of pigeons to navigate bombs dropped from aircraft so they would hit their targets accurately.13

Baby tender mistaken for Skinner box (JPG) An item of greater interest to the public was…[what] he called…the “baby-tender” (more pics) and spent years trying to distribute it commercially.… Skinner’s arguments in favor of the baby tender involved the fact that the danger of an infant smothering in its bedclothes was eliminated, that the baby enjoyed more protection from infection than would ordinarily be the case, and that a controlled environment was preferable to the environment of most households in which children are raised.14

Years later, with his academic reputation firmly established, Skinner had more success in initiating programmed instruction and the use of teaching machines in school settings (video). He invented the first of these devices…to promote the principle that mechanical and electronic “teachers” were more reliable and effective than humans ones — a stand that won him both acclaim and opposition in educational circles.15

Still a student at Harvard, he recalls, “I was now so much the complete behaviorist that I was shocked when people I admired used mentalistic terms.”… The young man…was already demonstrating the validity…that behaviorism could become a belief system generating the exclusivity, dogma, and righteousness of any other creed.16 The questions that interest clinicians…[include] why behavior that does not appear to be reinforcing, at least in the sense of generating pleasurable consequences, often persists in human beings for years, and the differential issue of why some of us adjust to changes in our environment while others do not.17

Skinner’s first public declamation of the world-saving power of behaviorism is contained in his Utopian novel, Walden Two (1948). A fuller exposition of his views on the future of the human race is put forth in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).18

[Margaret] Mead accused him of wanting to play God,…and Karl Popper wrote, “Skinner is an enemy of freedom and democracy. He has explained his contempt for freedom quite openly in his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He has expounded it many years before in a book Walden Two, which is the dream of a very kind but megalomaniac behaviorist who defends a behaviorist dictatorship.” 19

A Utopian novel set in contemporary America, Walden Two is the story of a visit by a small group of academics to an extraordinary community run along strictly behaviorist lines. They are variously impressed and repelled by what they see. The community was founded by a man named Frazier, a former psychologist turned reformer, whose belief in operant conditioning knows no bounds. He shows Walden Two to his visitors…keeping up a running commentary on its virtues, at first in a fairly objective manner, but eventually with all the fervor of a zealot.

At the beginning of their visit, for instance, he takes the group out for a walk. “This is our lawn,” he says. “But we consume it. Indirectly, of course — through our sheep. And the advantage is that it doesn’t consume us.… We soon found that the sheep kept to the enclosure and quite clear of the fence, which didn’t need to be electrified. So we substituted a piece of string, which is easier to move around.… [The lambs] stray,” Frazier conceded, “but they cause no trouble and soon learn to keep with the flock.” 20 The curious thing is that most of these sheep have never been shocked by the fence. Most of them were born after we took the wire away. It has become a tradition among our sheep never to approach string. The lambs acquire it from their elders, whose judgment they never question. It’s fortunate that sheep don’t talk,” said [one of Frazier’s visitors]. “One of them would be sure to ask ‘Why?’ The Philosophical Lambkin” (Walden Two, pp. 15-16).…

The incident seems innocuous enough, but the reader soon learns that it is a prototype for the rest of the story. Not only the animals but also the people at Walden Two have been conditioned to be of service to the community and to carry out their appointed duties without complaint and without question. The resultant peacefulness and efficiency of the place becomes captivation to some of the visitors, but it disturbs others,…who continually raise[] the issue of human beings being deprived of their freedom of choice.

Frazier’s counterargument, like his author’s, is that so-called freedom of choice is an illusion. We are all controlled by our environments, he says. We make continual efforts to control each other — teachers to control their students, students to control their teachers; parents to control their children, children to control their parents; friends and lovers, governments and citizens, all are engaged in this enterprise — but we do it poorly, haphazardly, because we don’t understand what we’re doing and even refuse to acknowledge the truth of our behavior.…

Getting carried away near the end of the story, Frazier addresses his guests in a state of mounting excitement21 [while] the visitors wrestle with the moral dilemma it presents.22 “What remains to be done?” he said.… “Well, what do you say to the design of personalities?… The control of temperament? Give me the specifications and I’ll give you the man! . . . And what about the cultivation of special abilities? 23 These things are left to accident or blamed on heredity.… We can analyze effective behavior and design experiments to discover how to generate it in our youth”… (Walden Two, pp. 274-275).…

Years later, Skinner wrote, “Much of the life in Walden Two was my own at the time.… I took a fairly extreme position,24 [and] I let Frazier say things that I myself was not yet ready to say to anyone . . . . Eventually (however) I became a devout Frazierian” (The Shaping of a Behaviorist, pp. 297-298).25 [Walden Two] (and Skinner) were attacked in Life Magazine under the heading, “The Newest Utopia is a Slander on Some Old Notions of the Good Life.”… “Dr. Skinner is the professor of psychology who is responsible for the invention of something known as ‘the mechanical baby tender’ . . . But the menace of the mechanical baby tender is as nothing compared to the menace of books like Walden Two. For Dr. Skinner’s utopia is a triumph of ‘cultural engineering’ and ‘behavioral engineering’ where the conditioned reflex is king . . . . Once they are trained, the inhabitants have ‘freedom.’ But it is the freedom of those Pavlovian dogs which are free to foam at the mouth whenever the ‘dinner’ bell invites them to a nonforthcoming meal” (pp. 347-348).…

The title [Beyond Freedom and Dignity] must be taken literally. Skinner lets us know from the outset that he considers the value placed on our so-called freedom to shape our own lives, as well as the vaunted ideal of the dignity of the individual, to be outmoded notions whose time has past.… He attacks them by insisting that a “technology of behavior” based on the principles of operant conditioning could produce a world as free from crime, unhappiness, and inefficiency as from our unfortunate overestimation of the worth of the individual and our common delusion that there actually is such a thing as freedom of the will.26


1 Raymond E. Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, 2nd ed. (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990), p. 304.

2 Ibidem, p. 305.

3 Ibidem, p. 306.

4 Thomas H. Metos, The Human Mind: How We Think and Learn (New York: Franklin Watts, 1990), p. 99.

5 Charles S. Carver & Michael F. Scheier, Perspectives on Personality, 3rd ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1996), p. 339.

6 Metos, Human Mind, p. 99.

7 Ibidem, pp. 99, 102.

8 Francis Marion University, “Burrus Frederic Skinner,” at http://www.fmarion.edu/psych/bio/skinner.htm.

9 Article restructured from a lecture provided by R.W. Kentridge, “Skinner Box,” at http://www.biozentrum.uni-wuerzburg.de/genetics/behavior/learning/SkinnerBox.html.

10 Fancher, Pioneers of Psychology, pp. 307-308.

11 Harvey Mindess, Makers of Psychology: The Personal Factor (New York: Human Sciences Press, Inc., 1988), p. 93.

12 Ibidem, p. 94.

13 Ibidem, p. 96.

14 Ibidem, p. 97.

15 Ibidem, pp. 97-98.

16 Ibidem, p. 94.

17 Ibidem, p. 96.

18 Ibidem, p. 94.

19 Ibidem, p. 98.

20 Ibidem, p. 99.

21 Ibidem, p. 100.

22 Ibidem, p. 101.

23 Ibidem, p. 100.

24 Ibidem, p. 101.

25 Ibidem, pp. 101-102.

26 Ibidem, p. 102.


See also

Kevin J. Crosby, "Behavioral Conditioning," SkewsMe.com, at http://www.skewsme.com/behavior.html (retrieved: 28 April 2013).

"B. F. Skinner - -," Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J8mJUjljOJM (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

"B. F. Skinner (3)," Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=T-NlINHHKPI (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

"B. F. Skinner - Modelagem," Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mm5FGrQEyBY (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

"B. F. Skinner - ," Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R37djtako3I (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

"Skinner fala sobre a Maquina de Ensinar," Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vmRmBgKQq20 (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

"Pombo utilizando instrumento," Paulo Francisco Slomp video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RJvBXPxFwsI (retrieved: 28 April 2013). (Embedding disabled)

"Walden Two - HIED 528 Beta Group," Teri Bowers video at YouTube.com, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LSrtDZE4sas (retrieved: 25 June 2013). (Watch it here)

Apple QuickTime
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BF Skinner defining Operant Conditioning: Quicktime video
  • http://www.cs.tcd.ie/research_groups/crite/personal/imgs/01skinner[1].mov

    Skinner discussing consequences in the classroom: Quicktime video
  • http://www-hcs.derby.ac.uk/tip/Skinner.mov

    Skinner answering questions: MP3 audio
  • http://www.envmed.rochester.edu/wwwvgl/sound/bfs_interview.mp3

    Skinner’s “On Having a Poem” (discussion of Chomsky’s review)
  • http://www.bfskinner.org/media/Having_a_Poem.ram

    Skinner’s teaching machines (Quicktime video)
  • http://edtech.ced.appstate.edu/movies/skinner.MOV

    J.B. Watson
  • Baby tender mistaken for Skinner box (JPG)misc. keywords: Skinner pic pics picture pictures biography