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B. F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 - August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist and author. He conducted pioneering work on experimental psychology and advocated behaviorism, which seeks to understand behavior entirely in terms of physiological responses to external stimuli. He also wrote a number of controversial works in which he proposed the widespread use of psychological behavior modification techniques (primarily operant conditioning) in order to improve society and increase human happiness.



Skinner was born in rural Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He attended Hamilton College in New York with the intention of becoming a writer and received a B.A. in English literature in 1926. After graduation, he spent a year in Greenwich Village attempting to become a writer of fiction, but he soon became disillusioned with his literary skills and concluded that he had little world experience and no strong personal perspective from which to write. During this time, which Skinner later called The Dark Year, he chanced upon a copy of Bertrand Russell's Philosophy in which Russell discusses the behaviorist philosophy of psychologist John B. Watson. At the time, Skinner had begun to take more interest in the actions and behaviors of those around him, and some of his short stories had taken a "psychological" slant. He decided to abandon literature and seek admission as a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University (which at the time was not regarded as a leading institution in that field).

Skinner received a Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931 and remained at that institution as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and later at Indiana University at Bloomington before returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained there for the rest of his career.


Skinner was mainly responsible for the development of the philosophy of radical behaviorism and for the further development of applied behavior analysis, a branch of psychology which aims to develop a unified theory of animal and human behavior based on principles of learning. He conducted research on shaping behavior through positive and negative reinforcement and demonstrated operant conditioning, a behavior modification technique which he developed in contrast with classical conditioning.

Contrary to popular belief, Skinner did not advocate the use of punishment. His research suggested that punishment was an ineffective way of controlling behavior, leading generally to short-term behavior change, but resulting mostly in the subject attempting to avoid the punishing stimulus instead of avoiding the stimulus that was causing punishment. An simple example of this is the failure of prison to eliminate criminal behavior. If prison (as a punishing stimulus) were effective at altering behavior, there would be no criminality, since the risk of imprisonment for criminal conduct is well established. However, individuals still commit offences, but attempt to avoid discovery and therefore punishment. The punishing stimulus does not stop criminal behaviour. The criminal simply becomes more sophisticated at avoiding the punishment.

Superstition in the pigeon

One of Skinner's most famous and interesting experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favourite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behaviour". He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they continued to perform the same actions:

One bird was conditioned to turn anti-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. ("'Superstition' in the Pigeon", B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947 [1] )

Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that the experiment also shed light on human behaviour:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behaviour and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behaviour. Rituals for changing one's luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favourable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behaviour in spite of many non-reinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviours have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else. (Ibid.)

Social engineering

Skinner is popularly known mainly for his controversial books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Walden Two describes a visit to an imaginary utopian commune in the 1950s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world due to their practice of scientific social planning and the use of operant conditioning in the raising of children. Beyond Freedom and Dignity advanced the thesis that obsolete social concepts, like free will and human dignity (by which Skinner meant belief in individual autonomy) stood in the way of greater human happiness and productivity.


  • About Behaviourism
  • by James G. Holland & B. F. Skinner
  • Enjoy Old Age
    • Notebooks (book) by B. F. Skinner & Robert Epstein (Ed.)
    • Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behaviour
  • Reflections on Behaviourism and Society
  • Schedules of Reinforcement by C. B. Ferster & B. F. Skinner
  • Science and Human Behaviour
    • Skinner for the Classroom by R. Epstein (Ed.) & B. F. Skinner
  • The Technology of Teaching
  • Upon Further Reflection
  • Verbal Behaviour
  • Walden Two

See also

External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about B. F. Skinner
  • National Academy of Sciences biography .
  • The B. F. Skinner Foundation .
  • B.F. Skinner profile, NNDB .
  • Los Horcones Walden Two Comunity .

Articles by Skinner:

  • Two Types of Conditioned Reflex and a Pseudo Type (1935)
  • "Superstition" in the Pigeon (1947)
  • Are Theories of Learning Necessary? (1950)

Last updated: 02-10-2005 23:29:46
Last updated: 03-13-2005 10:47:28