B. F. Skinner (1904-1990)
Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. His main contribution to the study of human and nonhuman behavior was to establish a psychology in which behavior is understood in scientific, naturalistic terms. For example, he explained behavior in terms of an ongoing stream of public and private events, not in terms of popular, cultural concepts such as ego, mind, or free will. Skinner's contributions were foundational to the field of behavior analysis.
Skinner received a B.S. in English from Hamilton College (New York) in 1926, failed in a brief literary career, and turned to psychology, receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1931. In ground-breaking research, he experimentally analyzed the "voluntary" behavior of individual organisms (rats), using equipment he himself designed and built (e.g., the operant chamber or "Skinner box"). Skinner's main interests were how behavior was learned and, once learned, how it was maintained. Skinner formalized, first, the principle of reinforcement, which states that behavior is learned because of its consequences (e.g., reinforcers), and, second, the concept of the contingencies of reinforcement. As for the latter, he discovered an important class of contingencies— schedules of reinforcement (e.g., the number of responses per reinforcer)—that maintained predictable patterns of behavior over time (e.g., high and low rates). The most representative presentation of Skinner's early research is The Behavior of Organisms (1938).
Although Skinner never conducted research with humans, he systematically interpreted human behavior in terms of the basic behavioral principles (e.g., Science and Human Behavior, 1953). His best known scholarly interpretation was Verbal Behavior (1957), which set off a debate about the role of mind and behavior in the analysis of language; the repercussions of the debate still linger. His more popular interpretations included Walden Two (1948) and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), which addressed the human condition and how to improve it. Skinner rarely applied his psychology directly. This was undertaken by others, especially in the fields of developmental disabilities, education, and clinical psychology, who became known as applied behavior analysts and behavior therapists.
Skinner did, however, address topics in developmental psychology, mainly child rearing and education, and invented important apparatuses (e.g., teaching machines, the "air crib"—a controlled physical space for infants). In the 1950s and 1960s his principles, concepts, and theory were extended to child development by other behavior analysts, notably Donald Baer, Sidney Bijou, and Jacob Gewirtz.
See also: BEHAVIOR ANALYSIS
Bjork, Daniel W. B. F. Skinner: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1993.
Nye, Robert D. The Legacy of B. F. Skinner: Concepts and Perspectives, Controversies and Misunderstandings. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole, 1992.
Publications by Skinner
The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1938.
Walden Two. New York: Macmillan, 1948.
Science and Human Behavior. New York: The Free Press, 1953.
Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.
Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971.
Brian D. Midgley
Edward K. Morris
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