Authors: B. F. Skinner

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American psychologist

Author Works

Nonfiction:

The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, 1938

Science and Human Behavior, 1953

Verbal Behavior, 1957

Schedules of Reinforcement, 1957 (with Charles. B. Ferster)

Cumulative Record, 1959, enlarged 1961, 3d edition 1972

The Analysis of Behavior, 1961 (with James G. Holland)

The Technology of Teaching, 1968

Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis, 1969

Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971

About Behaviorism, 1974

Particulars of My Life, 1976

Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, 1978

The Shaping of a Behaviorist, 1979

Notebooks, 1980 (Robert Epstein, editor)

Skinner for the Classroom, 1982 (Epstein, editor)

Enjoy Old Age, 1983 (with Margaret E.Vaughan)

A Matter of Consequences, 1983

Upon Further Reflection, 1987

Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, 1989

Long Fiction:

Walden Two, 1948

Biography

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, known as “Fred” to his friends and as “B. F.” to most others, was born in the railroad town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania (population about 2,500) and lived there until leaving for college at eighteen. Skinner’s family was middle-class. His father, William Arthur Skinner, was a lawyer for the railroad and ran for political office several times without ever winning an election. Fred’s mother, Grace Madge Skinner, was a homemaker known for her beauty, her singing voice, and her community service. Burrhus was her maiden name.{$I[A]Skinner, B. F.}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Skinner, B. F.}{$I[tim]1904;Skinner, B. F.}

Skinner’s mother nearly died in childbirth, a fact Fred was to be reminded of occasionally as he grew older. Skinner had one sibling, a younger brother named Ebbe who died tragically at sixteen of a brain hemorrhage. Fred Skinner was a college freshman when Ebbe died and never spoke much of the event.

Skinner attended the local high school, making good grades and graduating second in a class of seven. (His mother and father also graduated second in their classes.) He then attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, a small liberal arts school, where he majored in English. He took no psychology courses.

Although Will Skinner wanted his son to go into law, Fred had no taste for the field. He was interested in writing, and after graduating from Hamilton, Skinner proposed to his parents, who had relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, that he live back at home while writing a novel. Skinner’s father, who had himself tried unsuccessfully to write stories, agreed reluctantly to support Fred for a year. One year turned into two, although only the first was spent actually writing. Skinner had published poetry, essays, and news articles in local or college papers and even in some national magazines, and he had received encouragement from poet Robert Frost for his writing. However, he decided after what he later referred to as his “Dark Year” that he would never be a literary success. In fact, he began to doubt literature’s worth to anyone. According to Particulars of My Life, the first of Skinner’s autobiographical trilogy, this is when he began to consider science as a future.

Although Skinner had never taken psychology courses, he had always observed the behavior of humans and animals. He also realized that many of his stories had dealt with psychological issues. Perhaps the biggest catalyst for Skinner’s decision to focus on behavioral psychology came when he read Bertrand Russell’s An Outline of Philosophy (1927). From Russell he discovered the work of John Watson, the founder of the school of psychology called behaviorism. In the fall of 1928 Skinner started graduate school at Harvard University. There, he found kindred spirits in behaviorism, most notably Fred Keller, an early influence who also became Skinner’s lifelong friend.

Skinner obtained his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931 and then stayed for five more years to study animal behavior. When his fellowships ended in 1936, he accepted a teaching job at the University of Minnesota. Although never having taught before, he was apparently a good teacher. In addition to accepting new job, in 1936 Skinner married Yvonne Blue (called Eve), who had also been an English major. They had two daughters, Julie and Deborah. A persistent myth concerning Skinner is that he raised his second daughter, Deborah, in a “Skinner box” and that she became psychotic and either committed suicide or was institutionalized. This is untrue. Skinner, a talented inventor since childhood, developed a specialized crib for Deborah, sometimes called an “Aircrib,” which had an enclosed space with a glass front in which the temperature and lighting could be carefully controlled. Toys were available to Deborah, and although she slept in the crib, she was taken out frequently during the day to be cuddled. It was not, as so often reported, a cold and unfeeling approach to child rearing. Skinner’s daughters both adored him and spoke of him as a loving and involved father.

While at Minnesota, Skinner wrote his first two major books. One established his reputation as an innovative researcher and behaviorist; the other created controversy that made Skinner infamous to the public. The first book was The Behavior of Organisms, in which Skinner reported the results from years of research into rat behavior, using what is widely known as the Skinner box. (Skinner hated that term.) The second book, Walden Two, was a work of fiction written in the summer of 1945, just before Skinner left Minnesota to become departmental chairman at Indiana University. Skinner’s one-time dream of writing a novel had come true, though it was to be the only one he ever wrote and he had to promise the publisher a psychology textbook to get it accepted. Skinner waited three years to see Walden Two published, but, though it sold slowly at first, sales were in the millions by the time he died.

Although Walden Two became his best-known book, The Behavior of Organisms established Skinner’s reputation in psychology. It laid out the scientific basis for all of his later work, including Walden Two. Skinner presented six important concepts, as follows. First, psychologists should study behavior alone, not internal states such as thoughts or feelings. Second, behavior is determined by genetic and environmental factors, with environmental factors being of greater interest because they are more easily manipulated to change behavior. Third, organisms are active, and the behaviors they “emit” are primarily determined by environmental conditions. Fourth, when organisms act, they experience consequences; reinforcing consequences make behaviors more likely to reoccur, and punishing consequences make them less likely to reoccur. Fifth, animals such as rats and pigeons behave in ways that are essentially the same as in humans, which means that an understanding of animal behavior can be applied to understanding human behavior. Sixth, human problems, from abnormal behavior to criminality, can be corrected using behavioral concepts such as positive reinforcement. His later writings, including numerous articles and such books as Schedules of Reinforcement, Science and Human Behavior, and About Behaviorism, rendered Skinner the primary “behaviorist” in the world.

After only a few years as departmental chairman at Indiana, a position at which Skinner worked hard but for which he was not truly suited, he was invited in 1947 to give some lectures at Harvard. A position was offered him for the following year, and he accepted. He remained associated with Harvard for the rest of his life. There, his work varied even more widely among fields that interested him. He wrote a theoretical book titled Verbal Behavior and practical books about teaching that laid out basic principles that have strongly influenced American education. Among these principles were, first, that reinforcement is better than punishment for motivating students; second, that feedback on correct or incorrect student responses should be given as quickly as possible–preferably immediately; and third, that students should be allowed to learn at their own pace. He felt that many of these principles could be realized through technology.

While at Harvard, Skinner also became, increasingly, a social critic. He argued that humankind had made great strides in physical technology but that what was needed more was a “behavioral technology.” His best known work of social criticism was Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Skinner believed that his book explained and extended the concepts of freedom and dignity. His detractors saw his views as cold and inhuman and argued that Skinner treated people as little more than machines.

Skinner retired officially in 1974 at age seventy, but his was a working retirement. He visited his Harvard office frequently and continued his writing and correspondence without fail in his basement home office. He added three autobiographies to his resume: Particulars of My Life, The Shaping of a Behaviorist, and A Matter of Consequences, and he became increasingly in demand as a speaker. He received honorary degrees from many colleges and universities, including the University of Chicago, the University of Exeter (England), and McGill University (Canada). He received such awards as the National Medal of Science and the Humanist of the Year Award, and he became the first to receive the Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology. Next to Sigmund Freud, B. F. Skinner became the best-known psychologist of the twentieth century. His critics complained that his concepts dehumanized people, but many others have hailed him as a scientific innovator who developed novel and effective ways of dealing with human problems through the study and control of behavior. In 1989 Skinner was diagnosed with leukemia. He died the following year.

BibliographyBjork, Daniel W. B. F. Skinner: A Life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997. Presents views from both supporters and detractors of Skinner and tries to place Skinner in the larger context of American intellectual life.Nye, Robert D. The Legacy of B. F. Skinner. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992. An excellent short introduction to Skinner’s life and thoughts.Nye, Robert D. Three Psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers. 6th ed. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 2000. The most important section contrasts Skinner’s views with those of Sigmund Freud and Carl Rogers.Sagal, Paul T. Skinner’s Philosophy. Washington, D.C.: University Press of America, 1981. The author persuasively argues that Skinner’s philosophy has been unjustifiably neglected by both professional philosophers and psychologists alike. This perceptive analysis will be especially helpful to those readers about to embark on a study of Beyond Freedom and Dignity.Skinner, B. F. Particulars of My Life. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1976. Skinner’s own account of his early life from the time of his birth in 1904 to his matriculation as a graduate student of psychology at Harvard University in 1928. Includes intimate portraits of his parents and grandparents as well as a detailed record of his intellectual and sexual maturation.Skinner, B. F. The Shaping of a Behaviorist. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1979. Here, Skinner delineates his intellectual and professional development from the time of his arrival at Harvard University as a graduate student to his return as tenured member of its faculty some twenty years later. Especially noteworthy are Skinner’s extensive comments dealing with the air crib that he designed for his daughter Deborah as well as those pertaining to the ideology that underlies the utopian society depicted in Walden Two.Skinner, B. F. A Matter of Consequences. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983. Spanning a period of more than three decades, this volume is intended as the final installment of Skinner’s autobiography and constitutes an apologia for both his life and work. Much of the information purveyed here pertains to his lifelong interests in music, literature, drama, and art.Smith, Laurence D., and William R. Woodward, eds. B. F. Skinner and Behaviorism in American Culture. Bethlehem, Pa.: Lehigh University Press, 1996. Meant mostly for scholars.Weigel, John A. B. F. Skinner. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1977. An excellent introduction to Skinner’s scientific and philosophical works that also offers a reasoned response to his critics. A brief biographical sketch precedes the author’s discussion of Skinner’s ideas.Wiener, Daniel N. B. F. Skinner: Benign Anarchist. Needham Heights, Mass.: Allyn and Bacon, 1996. One of the most complete biographies of Skinner. Examines the unpleasant aspects of Skinner’s personality.
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