Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 – 1990) was an American psychologist, inventor, and advocate for social reform, author and poet. Skinner is considered to be one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century and one of the forefathers of the modern psychological science, being ‘defeated’ only by Sigmund Freud. If to list Skinner’s most notable works and inventions, the first on this list would definitely be the philosophy of science developed by him that is called Radical Behaviorism, the school of experimental research psychology that Skinner founded, and the cumulative recorder that he has invented to measure the rate of responding (Dews, 1970).
As Boeree (1998) states the whole psychological system of B.F. Skinner is based on the so called Operant Conditioning. The main idea of this theory is that a behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus results in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. And when the behavior is no longer followed by the reinforcing stimulus the result is that the probability of that behavior occurring in the future decreases. Another thing that Skinner discovered is that there is a fixed ratio between behaviors and reinforcements. All of his experiments connected with behavior Skinner, together with his students, was conducting on the animals. By experimenting on animals Skinner developed the Method of Successive Approximations or Shaping (Hothersall, 1995). With the help of this method he was getting animals to perform the behavior that they would never perform in the ordinary life. This method developed by Skinner has a lot in common with the method developed by another behaviorist named Joseph Wolpe. Wolpe developed a therapy for people with all sorts of phobias called Systematic Desensitization which took people through a series of systematic steps in order to get rid of their phobias (Wolpe, 1990). Another aspect of shaping behaviors and reinforcements developed by Skinner was the so called Aversive Stimuli which states that the behavior followed by the Aversive Stimulus results in the decreased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. And on the other hand the behavior followed by the removal of the Aversive Stimulus results in the increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future. The simple example of the Aversive Stimulus is punishment. But the thing that Skinner has discovered about positive and negative reinforcements was that positive reinforcement works better than the negative one. All of the works of Skinner connected with behavior shaping and reinforcement were summarized in the therapy technique called Behavior Modification which states that in order to get the right behavior one needs to extinguish an undesirable behavior and replace it with a desirable one with the help of reinforcement (Dews, 1970). This technique of Skinner is used now for solving all sorts of psychological problems, such as addictions, shyness, neuroses and so on.
But Skinner’s ideas and views were not always easily accepted by the vast community, especially by the religious one. For example, Skinner’s book Walden 2 was strongly criticized by religious people for taking away the dignity and freedom of people as human beings. Another aspect of Skinner’s work for which he was often criticized was the fact that he very easily applied his discoveries about rats’ or some other animals’ behavior to that of human beings. In some way Skinner had no problem with assuming that what was true for rats would be applicable for people, but in different and more complex situations.
It can be seen that in his studying of behaviorism, as well as in his discoveries, Skinner followed the ideas and inventions of such psychologists and biologists as Ivan Pavlov, Jacques Loeb, and John Watson. But also in his works Skinner continued to develop the ideas of these psychologists, very often his discoveries contradicted to theirs. For example, Skinner’s ideas of Operant Conditioning and Shaping Behavior were absolutely unlike the idea of Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning. In Classical Conditioning the existing behavior is considered to be shaped by associating it with a new stimulus, but in Operating Conditioning there is the rewarding of a partial behavior or a random act that approaches the desired behavior. The definition of stimulus and response was formulated by John Broadus Watson (1913) in such a way: “By stimulus we mean any object in the general environment or any change in the tissues themselves due to the physiological condition of the animal, such as the change we get when we keep an animal from sex activity, when we keep it from feeding, when we keep it from building a nest. By response we mean anything the animal does – such as turning toward or away from a light, jumping at a sound, and more highly organized activities such as building a skyscraper, drawing plans, having babies, writing books, and the like.” (p.160). Skinner’s work was greatly influenced by that of Watson. But even earlier the idea of behaviorism and that a psychologist should forsake the human mind and inner personality was formulated by Wilhelm Wundt in the late 1800s. In his works Wundt stated that the man is a summation of his experiences, of the stimuli which intrude upon his consciousness and unconsciousness. In addition Skinner’s position regarding scientific principal of behavior seems to be a kind of extension of the physicist Ernst March’s The Science of Mechanics to the subject of psychology.
While being greatly interested in all the works connected with biology and psychology, Skinner was quite rarely turning to philosophy. As Dews (1970) says Skinner was turning to philosophy only when it seemed to confirm his own already conceived ideas. Very often Skinner was seen as a revolutionary psychologist, but in fact he was simply opposing the nineteenth-century German academic psychology that was represented by E. B. Titchner and Hugo Munsterberg. Skinner also was strongly against the theories developed by Sigmund Freud, he thought the study of the unconscious or hidden motives of human beings is a complete waste of time, and that the outward behaviors of people should be examined instead. Skinner rejected Freud’s idea of inner drives such as Id, Ego and Superego, and was totally convinced that the development of personality occurs due to the external events to which it has to respond. As a descendent of such American pragmatists as William James, John Dewey, and C. S. Pierce Skinner didn’t believe that the “inner man” that can be found inside of every person could exist outside the life itself.
The works of Skinner within the fields of psychology and behaviorism were greatly influenced by his own political and social views. Skinner had a great hope that someday the humanity will stop destroying itself (Dews, 1970). He strongly opposed the use of punishment and fear (which are the negative stimuli) and supported the use of positive reinforcement. In his book Walden Two Skinner described his own view of an ideal society. For him it was based on the ideas of friendship, art, health and healthy balance between work and leisure, and the feeling that one has made a worthwhile contribution to the society. And in Skinners’ perception one of the keys to such an ideal community was the behavioral technology that could be used instead of coercion.
Although very often Skinner was criticized for his sometimes radical and controversial views, his ideas eventually became so influential that the American Psychological Association created a separate division of studies based on Skinner’s discoveries (Division 25 “The Experimental Analysis of Behavior”).
His life experience and the traits of his character have greatly influenced Skinner’s scientific work. In many ways his discoveries and psychological ideas were as much provocative and rebellious as his own behavior. His rebellious nature was observed when Skinner openly revolted against the daily mandatory chapel services and physical education classes which were conducted in the Hamilton College where he was a student. And on the overall as an atheist Skinner was very critical about the religious school he attended, and he was not afraid to state his viewpoints very openly. The same was in his scientific work. For example, when Skinner was greatly criticized for his book Walden Two, he responded to the critics by the publication of another, even more controversial book, called Beyond Freedom and Dignity that promoted and further developed ideas stated in Walden Two. Another representation of Skinner’s independent and rebellious nature was reflected in his attitude towards classical psychology. He was never interested in psychological theories and rational equations. As he himself stated “I have studied nature not books asking questions of the organism rather than those who have studied the organism.” That’s why Skinner was concentrated on building psychological machines rather than on building new psychological theories.
Skinner’s love to build machines and invent new things also comes from his childhood. As a boy he was designing different things all the time, starting with the model ships and ending with a system for getting oxygen from the seawater. Later in his life Skinner constructed such machines as the cumulative recorder to record discrete actions; air crib – an easy-cleaned, temperature and humidity controlled box designed to assist in the raising of babies; operant conditioning chamber built to measure organic responses and their orderly interactions with the environment; teaching machine, pigeon guided missile, and the Skinner-box.
The works of Skinner had a great influence on such fields as Education and Organizational Development. For example, Skinner’s theory of stimuli and response gave teachers and managers the possibility to understand how the right and desired behavior of students and employees can be promoted, and how their undesired behavior can be removed. On the basis of Skinner’s works a lot of corporations are now able to develop their own systems of employees’ motivation and reinforcement. Another Skinner’s contribution to Education was the development of a teaching machine with the help of which students could learn bit by bit uncovering answers for an immediate “reward”. The basic principal of this machine was that students were presented with a relatively simple set of questions and by answering them correctly they were receiving an immediate reinforcement to continue. The idea of such machines was used as a basis to construct computer-based self-instruction. Skinner’s work, especially his Behavior Modification Method, became highly important for and widely used in the clinical treatment of mental and emotional disorders.
Although Skinner had a lot of followers, and a whole bunch of journals and societies were based on his work, still there were and are lots of scientists and psychologists who strongly criticize and oppose his discoveries and inventions. For example, in his book The New Behaviorism (2001) J. E. R. Staddon has argued that although Skinner believed his theories to be contradictory to the traditional notions of reward and punishment, on the whole they seem to be quite the same. The most famous and passionate critic of Skinner is probably Noam Chomsky, who had written a number of critical reviews on Skinner’s books and articles. For instance, Chomsky has always argued that Skinner can’t be called a true scientist because he has rejected the hypothetico-deductive model, he accused Skinner of justifying totalitarianism through his works. Chomsky also stated that Skinner’s laboratory work can’t be applied to humans, that he had no science of behavior and so on and so forth. Another large portion of criticism Skinner received for the fact that he had been doing all of his experiments on animals and by this allowing no room for independent decision making that all men are equal in their ability to think and respond. But still the greatest amount of criticism Skinner probably had received for his ideas that through the system of rewards and punishments the perfect society can be built, these ideas can be found in his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. As well Skinner has been greatly criticized for believing that people don’t have their inner souls or conscious identities and that they are totally determined by their environments.
Frederic Skinner’s influence on and role in the development of the contemporary psychology in any case mustn’t be underestimated. He represented a kind of a rare specialist who was truly devoted to and interested in what he was doing. Throughout all of his life Skinner was moving further and further, developing new psychological methods and approaches, improving those that were created by him as well as those of other scientists, building new machines and establishing new techniques. It seems to me that Frederic Skinner was a man of an enormous energy and devotion. His life motto was “If I can do it, you can do it” and he truly believed that through effort and industriousness people could make themselves into anything they wanted. It seems to me that this is the best psychological stimulation that anyone can receive and the best way to look at life. We should always keep in mind that whatever we want to achieve – we can achieve, but definitely we need to work hard in order to be what we want to be in our lives.
Boeree, C. G. (1998). B. F. Skinner. Shippensburg University.
Dews, P. B. (1970). Festschrift for B. F. Skinner. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology, 3rd edition. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Karen, R. (1974). An Introduction to Behavior Theory and its Applications. New York: Harper and Row.
Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as a Behaviorist Views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158 – 177.
Wolpe, J. (1990). The Practice of Behavior Therapy. Tarrytown, NY: Pergamon Press.