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.
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).
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 before
returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained
there for the rest of his career. Skinner was granted numerous
awards in his lifetime. In 1968, he received the National Medal
of Science by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
years later, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Psychological
Foundation, and in 1972, he was given the Humanist of the Year
Award of the American Humanist Association. Just eight days before
his death, he received the first Citation for Outstanding Lifetime
Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association
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 framework for 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.
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 behavior that was causing punishment.
A simple example of this is the failure of prison to eliminate
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. Reinforcement, both positive and negative (the latter
of which is often confused with punishment), proves to be more
effective in bringing about lasting changes in behaviour.
in the pigeon
One of Skinner's most famous and interesting experiments examined
the formation of superstition in one of his favorite 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". Whatever chance actions each bird
had been performing as food was delivered was strengthened, so
the bird continued to perform the same actions:
bird was conditioned to turn counter-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.
—B.F. Skinner (1947). "'Superstition' in the Pigeon".
Journal of Experimental Psychology 38.
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
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.
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 1940s 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. Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden,
champions a lifestyle that doesn't foster competition and social
strife and doesn't support war. It favors and encourages a lifestyle
of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness,
satisfying work and leisure.
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. Skinner was just as opposed to inhumane treatment
and bad government as many, and perhaps more than some, but he
argued that the champions of freedom went so far as to deny causality
in human action so they could champion the "free person."
So the champions of freedom were, in a sense, the enemies of a
scientific way of knowing. There is a rough parallel here to the
book "Higher Superstition" in the opposition to scientific
knowledge, except Skinner here is being much more general.
is the practice of giving individuals credit for their actions.
To say "Skinner is brilliant" means that Skinner is
an originating force. If Skinner is right, he is merely the focus
of his environment. He is not an originating force and he had
no choice in saying the things he said or doing the things he
did. Skinner's environment and genetics allowed and made him write
his book. This is not to say that that means it is not true. The
environment and genetics of the advocates of freedom and dignity
make them fight the reality of their activity being grounded in
One often-repeated story claims that Skinner ventured into human
experiments by raising his daughter Deborah in a Skinner box,
which led to her life-long mental illness and a bitter resentment
towards her father.
fact, the Heir Conditioner, a term for Skinner's baby crib, was
heated, cooled, had filtered air, allowed plenty of space to walk
around in, and was much like a miniature version of a modern home.
It was designed to make the baby more confident, more comfortable,
less sick, less prone to cry, and so on. Reportedly it had some
success in these goals.
and author Lauren Slater published a book, "Opening Skinner's
Box," in 2004, which mentioned claims that Deborah unsuccessfully
sued her father for abuse and later committed suicide. The book
then immediately pointed out that the reality was rather different.
However, at least one reviewer misread the book and reported it
as making the claims without correcting them. In response, Deborah
Skinner herself came forward to publicly denounce the story as
nothing more than hearsay and presumably to vouch for her own
continued existence. She blasted Lauren Slater's book for repeating
this urban legend as being vicious and harmful; she was presumably
relying on someone else's inaccurate depiction of the book's contents.
See "I was not a lab rat" in the Guardian Unlimited
Friday March 12, 2004 for the full text of Deborah's denunciation.
much as anything, this episode showed how rumours come into being
- even now, journalists still write articles about whether this
book was in support of, rather than against, the original rumours
about Skinner's treatment of his children.
Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective
and humane science of behavioral control - a behavioral technology
- could solve human problems which were not solved by earlier
approaches or were actively aggravated by advances in physical
technology such as the atomic bomb. One of Skinner's stated goals
was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.
was sometimes accused of being a totalitarian by his critics,
and it is not difficult to see why. In addition to his aspirations
to state design, Skinner was a determinist, believing that all
of our behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the
saw the problems of political control not as a battle of domination
versus freedom, but as choices of what kinds of control were used
for what purposes. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment
and fear and supported the use of positive reinforcement.
book Walden Two presents a vision of a decentralized, localized
society which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically
advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems.
Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both
a thought experiment and a rhetorical work.
answers a problem that exists in many utopian novels "What
is the Good Life?" Skinner answers that it is a life of friendship,
health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum
of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile
contributions to one's society.
Skinner felt behavioral technology would offer alternatives to
coercion, good science applied right would help society, and we
would all be better off if we cooperated with each other peacefully.
Skinner's novel has been described by Skinner as "my New
Atlantis" referring to Bacon's utopia.
opponents, such as Noam Chomsky, in their attempt to show Skinner
wrong, have equated Skinner's philosophic determinism with political
oppression. Skinner has often been equated to political and social
positions he never espoused and even explicitly objected to.
According to a photo caption at the site of Los Horcones community
(which was inspired by Skinner's Walden Two), in his youth Skinner
used to swim in Thoreau's Walden Pond.