Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of Psychology Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In Science and Human Behavior, B. F. Skinner, already known for his book Walden Two—a utopian text examining the superiority of a socially and scientifically planned society—explicated behaviorism and his theories of operant conditioning and reinforcement as means for eliciting socially desirable behavior.

Summary of Event

In 1953, psychologist B. F. Skinner published a textbook titled Science and Human Behavior. In it, he outlined his theory of operant conditioning and sought to explain his vision as to how such a science of behavior might be applied to human society. The science he referred to was behaviorism (sometimes called neobehaviorism), an experiment-based theory of learning that had its roots in the classic works of the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov and American psychologists such as John B. Watson and Edward Lee Thorndike. In his book, Skinner argued that the design of society should not be left to chance. Instead, he proposed that the same principles that had successfully explained the behavior of rats and pigeons should be applied more broadly to human affairs—thereby leading to desired outcomes. Science and Human Behavior (Skinner) Behaviorism [kw]Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of Psychology (1953) [kw]Behaviorist School of Psychology, Skinner Develops the (1953) [kw]Psychology, Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of (1953) Science and Human Behavior (Skinner) Behaviorism [g]North America;1953: Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of Psychology[04020] [g]United States;1953: Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of Psychology[04020] [c]Psychology and psychiatry;1953: Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of Psychology[04020] [c]Publishing and journalism;1953: Skinner Develops the Behaviorist School of Psychology[04020] Skinner, B. F. Pavlov, Ivan Petrovich Thorndike, Edward Lee Watson, John B.

Skinner did not begin his academic work as a behaviorist. He initially earned an undergraduate degree in English and tried, for a time, to write. With little to show for his efforts, he took a job at a bookstore. There, he became acquainted with the writings of Pavlov and Watson—major figures in the behaviorist school of psychology. Their focus was on respondent (classical) conditioning. Classical conditioning theory explains how respondent behaviors, such as fear reactions, get associated with stimuli that did not initially trigger them.

An oft-cited example of classical conditioning is Watson’s “Little Albert” case study "Little Albert" case study[Little Albert case study] . A baby, Little Albert, would automatically respond with fear (an unconditioned response) whenever a loud noise (an unconditioned stimulus) was presented. Watson repeatedly paired a white rat (which the baby was not afraid of) with a loud noise. The noise continued to scare Little Albert, who came to associate it with the rat. Eventually, just the presence of the white rat without the noise would elicit fear in the baby. The white rat had become a conditioned stimulus. Skinner’s exposure to these behaviorists led, in part, to his enrolling in graduate school in psychology at Harvard University.

At Harvard, Skinner studied operant behavior using rats (and later pigeons). As opposed to respondent behaviors, operant behaviors are those that are, initially, exhibited spontaneously by an organism. Much of human behavior is of this kind. Unlike Little Albert’s fear response, nothing in the environment automatically causes an organism to engage in operant behavior. However, once an operant behavior is exhibited (for example, if a rat turns to the left), reinforcement following that behavior will increase the probability of its being repeated in the future. This is essentially a statement of Thorndike’s “Law of Effect.”

Using a cumulative recorder of his own invention, Skinner systematically examined the behavior of rats under various schedules of reinforcement. Skinner received his doctorate from Harvard in 1931 and continued his research into operant behavior. Although he acknowledged that human behavior was complex, Skinner believed that the fundamental principles of behavior were essentially the same, whether in a pigeon or a person.

In 1945, as World War II was coming to an end, Skinner attended a dinner party. During a conversation with a guest, Skinner opined that it was too bad that the idealistic young soldiers would be returning from the war only to fall back into the old routines of society. The guest, whose son and son-in-law were both serving in the war, suggested that Skinner write a book about how to make a better society. This conversation planted the the seed for Skinner’s Walden Two Walden Two (Skinner) (1948). Skinner borrowed the name for his book from Henry David Thoreau’s Walden: Or, Life in the Woods (1854). Unlike the numerous other books he wrote during his life, Skinner’s fictional work was completed quite rapidly.

In Walden Two, two soldiers returning from the war are given a tour of a utopian community by a man named Frasier. Skinner used Frasier’s voice to argue for the use of behaviorist principles (in other words, managing the contingencies of reinforcement) to produce a model, utopian society. In this community, industrious behaviors were shaped and reinforced in a systematic way to promote the betterment of the group. Walden Two became one of Skinner’s better-known works (particularly in the 1960’s) and one of his more controversial ones. The novel suggested that individual freedom was illusory. Rather than being independent agents, people were merely the sum of those behaviors that had been shaped by reinforcement and punishment throughout their lives.

This deterministic view challenged American notions of individual freedom, and many Americans were put off by it. Coming, as it did, on the heels of a war against totalitarian countries, such as Adolf Hitler’s Germany, the idea that someone else should decide what was best for people and then control their behavior through reinforcement was particularly distasteful. In contrast, Skinner felt that determinism was simply true. Therefore, since people’s lives were being shaped by the forces governing their behaviors whether they liked it or not, the only rational course of action was to take charge of those forces and use them to bring about socially desirable results. Certainly, Skinner felt, the ongoing problems of humankind, such as war, overpopulation, poverty, pollution, and the like, did not seem to be solved by letting nature take its course.

Skinner initially had some difficulty finding a publisher for Walden Two. Eventually, Macmillan offered to publish the book if Skinner would agree to write a textbook for them. The resultant introductory text, Science and Human Behavior, was based on lectures that Skinner had given in a class he taught at Harvard. Skinner began the book with the question, “Can science help?” His answer, of course, was “yes”: It could provide the principles of operant conditioning to be applied to humanity for its preservation and improvement.

As Skinner wrote, “The methods of science have been enormously successful wherever they have been tried. Let us apply them to human affairs.” His text outlined respondent conditioning in chapter 4, and then, beginning with chapter 5, it described operant conditioning in detail. An operant was defined as a behavior that “operates upon the environment to generate consequences.” In this and subsequent chapters, Skinner defined such concepts as reinforcement, extinction, shaping behavior, operant discrimination, satiation, aversion, avoidance, anxiety, and punishment. In particular, Skinner made the argument that positive reinforcement was a much more effective approach in modifying behavior than was punishment. Following chapters dealing with topics such as government, religion, psychotherapy, and education, he concluded his text with several chapters dealing with culture and the control of human behavior. Overall, his message was similar to that of Walden Two: A science of human behavior should be utilized to improve the world.


Skinner’s book Science and Human Behavior, as well as earlier works such as Walden Two, secured his standing as the leader of the behaviorist school of psychology in the United States. Another book that caused controversy and increased his fame in later years was Beyond Freedom and Dignity Beyond Freedom and Dignity (Skinner) (1971). In this book, Skinner challenged the critics of Walden Two and his other writings head on, continuing to argue that such mentalistic concepts as freedom and dignity stood in the way of a more realistic view of men and women based on a science of behavior.

To some extent, Skinner’s principles of operant conditioning were popular because they “fit” with a capitalist society. They have been applied in a variety of settings over the years, including regular and special-education classrooms, mental institutions, prisons, and the workplace, to name but a few. Skinner focused on observable events and behaviors and emphasized positive reinforcement as a mechanism for shaping and controlling behavior. He suggested that, by reinforcing those behaviors deemed desirable by society, human behavior could be changed for the better. He did not explain, however, the basis for believing that society’s desires existed outside the system. In other words, if human behavior is conditioned, then Skinner’s own beliefs and the values guiding any behavioral program must also be conditioned. This fact complicates the question of how it is possible for scientists or political bodies to choose what behavior to encourage, rather than simply encouraging the behavior they have been conditioned to encourage.

In the course of his life, Skinner made a lasting mark as the nation’s foremost advocate of behaviorism. He had a long and productive career, the majority of it at Harvard University. Skinner died of leukemia in 1990, only a few days after giving an invited address to the American Psychological Association. Science and Human Behavior (Skinner) Behaviorism

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bjork, Daniel W. B. F. Skinner: A Life. New York: American Psychological Association, 1997. A well-received biography of B. F. Skinner.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hunt, Morton. The Story of Psychology. New York: Doubleday, 1993. A history of psychology that describes the behaviorist school.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mills, John A. Control: A History of Behavioral Psychology. New York: New York University, 1998. Details the history of both theoretical and applied behaviorism. Includes a chapter on Skinner and his work at the intersection of psychology and philosophy. Bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Skinner, Burrhus F. About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf, 1974. An excellent summary of behaviorism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971. Skinner’s rebuttal to the critics of Walden Two.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stout, Rowland. The Inner Life of a Rational Agent: In Defence of Philosophical Behaviourism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2006. Mounts a defense of the branch of behaviorism most strongly associated with Skinner. Bibliographic references and index.

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