B. F. Skinner And Behaviorism

B.F. Skinner was a controversial and interesting psychologist who founded behaviorism and made important contributions to learning theory and principles of behavior modification

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was a well-known and controversial 20th century researcher and teacher who is associated with a school of psychology known as behaviorism.

Fred, as his family called him, was born on March 20, 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, a small railroad town just south of the New York state border.

His parents were Grace and William Skinner, a couple quite concerned with outward appearances and social respectability. William was an attorney for the Erie Railroad. Grace was actively involved with numerous civic organizations, primarily to promote the family image. According to her son, she derived little pleasure from them.

Of the couple's two sons, Fred's younger brother Edward was the more obedient, charming and socially adept. Edward's misdeeds were often overlooked, while Fred's were always punished.

Despite this apparent favoritism, Fred enjoyed great freedom to wander about doing whatever he liked. He was resourceful, creating imaginative gizmos as playthings or as solutions to his youthful problems. One such gadget helped him avoid his mother's displeasure, making a sign pop up when he forgot to hang up his pajamas.

In later years, Fred would have opposed the use of words like "curiosity", "intelligence", or "creativity", to characterize his childhood ingenuity. Fred believed that his resourcefulness was an acquired behavior "shaped" gradually by the environment around him. Accidental successes and discoveries "reinforced" his continued experimentation.

In 1922, Fred graduated as salutatorian from Susquehanna High School and was admitted to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York in 1922. The liberal arts college placed a great emphasis on writing skills, and Fred felt that he would like to become a writer.

He continued to be socially awkward, often appearing aloof and pretentious to his classmates. He was uncomfortably aware of his inability to fit in with the other students, and later remarked that he had turned his entire freshman class against him with a critical remark. Adding to his difficulties adjusting to school, Fred's younger brother Edward suddenly died of a cerebral hemorrhage.

Fred graduated from Hamilton in 1926, again as salutatorian of his class. At about the same time, his grandfather passed away. Fred wrote a dispassionate, clinical account of his grandfather's death. He was unable to involve his emotions in his writing, - a profound handicap for a would-be author. He found himself questioning his life philosophy, and casting about for new answers to his questions about life and death.

In August, he read about the founder of behaviorism, John B. Watson, for the first time. Behaviorism was the late 19th century's answer to the criticism that psychology was not a true science.

Watson eliminated the study of motivation, mental processes and emotions from behavioral psychology, focusing instead on the study of observable, measurable behavior.

Fred Skinner's mind was primed for a change. Increasingly, the perspective put forth by behaviorists made sense to him.

In the fall of 1928, Skinner returned to school, this time entering Harvard University for graduate studies in psychology. In the informal atmosphere at Harvard, Skinner at last began to come into his own.

There he built a device capable of precisely measuring and recording the number of times a rat pressed a bar to receive a food pellet. This box, along with the attached recording equipment, provided a way to collect more objective data about behavior than scientists had been able to gather before. The device came to be known as the "Skinner box"

Skinner's innovations were viewed with both admiration and suspicion by Harvard faculty. Introspective psychology was dominant at Harvard, and behaviorism appeared to belittle studies of the inner workings of the mind. The head of the Harvard psychology department, Edwin Boring, was uncomfortable with the direction in which Skinner's studies were going. To Boring's credit, he consciously tried not to be an obstacle to Skinner's advancement.

In 1931, Skinner received his PhD from Harvard. He remained there for several more years, conducting research. In 1937, he was offered a teaching/research position at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis. He had met Yvonne Blue, his future wife, the previous year. In November of 1937, shortly before moving to Minneapolis to begin his new career, the two were married.

Skinner's brand of behaviorism was becoming more radical with time. It was fortunate that the University of Minnesota was not dominated by any particular school of psychology, and was therefore somewhat open to his brand of behaviorism.

Basically, Skinner modified the tenets of behaviorism to fit his own discoveries, which involved what he called "operant conditioning." "Conditioning" is the scientific term for learning. "Operant" refers to Skinner's idea that any organism "operates" on his environment - that is, performs actions that change the environment around it for better or for worse. Operant psychology is based on the idea that an action taken by a person or an animal often has consequences that occur naturally in the environment. This principal is called "operant conditioning". Reinforcement is something that makes it more likely that a given behavior will be repeated. The consequences of a given action either reinforce the behavior or do not.

For example, if a child makes faces at the teacher in school, the laughter of the other children may serve to reinforce his behavior. If the teacher punishes him by making him write, "I will not make faces" one hundred times on the chalkboard, the child may avoid such antics in the future. Thus, the child initiates the behavior, and factors in the environment either reward or punish his behavior.

Skinner did not worry much about which consequence was the stronger one. He believed that if a behavior was reinforced, it was apt to be repeated. Skinner believed that positive reinforcement was more effective than punishment. He also believed that the reinforcement must come swiftly.

Experimenters using Skinner's techniques have taught birds and animals to perform any number of unnatural actions. We have all seen chickens playing toy pianos or dogs climbing ladders, acting like firemen. These peculiar behaviors are taught through a process called "shaping."

For example, a chicken is at first rewarded if it turns slightly in the direction of the piano. As it begins to turn toward the piano more frequently, it begins to be rewarded only when it looks directly at the piano or moves toward it. Eventually it is rewarded only when it touches the piano, and so forth.

This shaping of behavior, or "successive approximation" has proven to be a very successful teaching technique. It has been adapted to teach people to overcome phobias or other disruptive behaviors.

Skinner's beliefs and techniques were not radical enough in themselves to cause the storm of controversy that eventually began to swirl around him. One factor contributing to this storm was the "baby tender".

The baby tender was a device Skinner invented to keep his second daughter, Deborah in a safe, thermostatically controlled environment while he worked. It was the high-tech equivalent of a playpen, but was misunderstood and construed as a diabolical device that Skinner was using to experiment upon his hapless child. He was accused of keeping Deborah, who became known as "the baby in the box" inside the baby tender for three years, depriving her of fresh air and human companionship. Although this was far from the truth, magazine articles painted Skinner as an unfeeling, inhumane parent.

In 1971, Skinner published a book that would prove to be even more shocking to the American public. In "Beyond Freedom and Dignity", Skinner challenged the very foundation of the American belief system. He dismissed the notion that individual freedom existed. Man's actions were nothing more than a set of behaviors that were shaped by his environment, over which he had no control.

Such views, even if they had been completely understood in the context of Skinner's work, flew in the face of what most Americans held dear. They removed admired attributes from man -- free will, dignity, and conscious thought -- and replaced them with behaviors that were shaped by an environment over which individual man had little or no control.

Skinner's penchant for substituting his own special vocabulary for words that he felt might be misunderstood probably contributed to the controvesies that flared up around him. Since most people had no idea what he was talking about, these words did not clarify his ideas, but rather confused his listeners.

When he advocated the use of operant conditioning techniques to control and engineer human behavior, the idea smacked of tyranny and abuse of power. Skinner responded that all behavior is already controlled by factors in the environment, and that society needed to manage some of those factors.

Therapists have taken Skinner's ideas and used them to help people overcome phobias and other maladaptive behavior. They are helping people control their actions without using the emotionally charged language that got Skinner into so much hot water.

Psychologists have disproven the idea that a cat can always be trained to perform the same tasks as a pigeon. Instead, certain species seem to be pre-wired to perform certain types of tasks, while other species may be unable to learn them, despite their physical ability to do so.

Immediate rewards are no longer considered to be the best reinforcers under all conditions, although they play an important role in many types of learning. Today, scientists acknowledge that learning involves more complicated combinations of factors. Sometimes a delayed reward is more effective than an immediate one. A combination of reward and punishment can also speed learning.

Programmed teaching materials providing immediate feedback to students' responses are utilized in today's classrooms to effectively teach certain types of material. Skinner's ideas have also been adopted to teach mentally retarded and autistic children, are used in industry to reduce job accidents, and are used in numerous applications in health-related fields.

B. F. Skinner died of leukemia on August 18, 1990, at the age of 86.

In spite of some flaws in B.F. Skinner's views, the principles of operant conditioning still play an important role in the way we approach learning and behavior modification today.


Carpenter, Finley. The Skinner Primer: Behind Freedom and Dignity. New York: The Free Press, a Division of Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc., 1974:

Bjork, Daniel W. B. F. Skinner: A Life. New York: BasicBooks, a Division of Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 1993

Hunt, Morton. The Story of Psychology. New York: Doubleday, 1993.

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