Burrhus Frederick Skinner

(1904 - 1990)

Compiled by Christa Swenson (May 1999)

Skinner Biography
Time Line

One of the most influential psychologist ever is B. F. Skinner. Skinner was born and raised in the small rural town of Susquehanna, Pa. He graduated high school in the very same house that he was born in. He had one brother who was 2½ years younger than he, who died at the age of 16 from a cerebral aneurism. Skinner enjoyed working with his hands, many of his childhood days were spent building things such as rollerscooters, steerable wagons and sleds. And, he invented things. For example, he and a friend gathered elderberries to sell them door to door. He constructed a flotation system which separated ripe from green berries. And, he even worked on the idea of a perpetual motion machine. Skinner went through all twelve grades in one school building, graduating with only eight other students. He developed an interest art and literature through drawing in the younger grades and later reading Shakespeare. (Dews, 1970).

Skinner attended Hamilton College, a small liberal arts institution, on the recommendation of a friend. He majored in English Literature and minored in Romance Languages. Here, his rebellious nature emerged when he openly revolted against the Student Life department. He refused to go to the daily mandatory chapel services, and physical education classes and made a mockery of the institution during the graduation ceremonies. Following graduation, he attempted a career in writing. He attended the Middlebury School of English in Vermont, where he met Robert Frost and wrote his first book, Digest of Decisions of the Anthracite Board of Conciliation, about a 1904 coal strike (Dews, 1970).

However, Skinner felt that he little to offer as a writer so he moved on to psychology. His early interest in Psychology were mostly geared toward Philosophy, as evident in his first writing of Treatise Nova Principia Orbis Terrarum. He had a minimal college psychology background in the discipline and much of his early work was on self observation of memory and perception. He learned about Pavlov through Conditioned Reflexes, and about Loeb through Physiology of the Brain and Comparative Psychology. These were assigned readings in ‘Bugsy' Morrell's biology class. Nothing quite reached Skinner until he met Fred S. Keller, a behaviorist graduate student at Harvard at the time. While in high school and college he did the bare minimum of what was required of him, he now learned to be a hard worker (Dews, 1970).

In 1930 Skinner wrote a paper on the concept of a reflex, similar to Mach's Science of Mechanics. Curious about changes of eating rates and drive and reflex strength, he formed his thesis proposal. Initially it was rejected but after a second attempt it was accepted. For the remainder of the year (1930-31) Skinner worked in a laboratory supported by the balance of a Harvard Fellowship. After getting his degree Crozier put Skinner up for National Research Council Fellowships for two years, but he was never under any pressure to adopt his principles or move into his field ( Dews, 1970).

Skinner saw the utility of the experimental method: control the environment and you will see order in behavior. In 1938, he wrote The Behavior of Organisms in which the characteristics of operant behavior were becoming defined. In his retort to Konorski and Miller's challenge of his paper the word operant was formally used. Its function, then as now was to identify behavior traceable to reinforcing contingencies rather than to elicit stimuli (Dews, 1970).

"In the spring of 1936, the low point of the depression, the end of his Junior Fellowship was approaching and he had no job. Through his relationships with Walter Hunter he took a position at The University of Minnesota teaching small sections of an introductory class. Two of his students were Norman Guttman and W.K. Estes, both of which he had stolen from other majors. ...Skinner had still not given up literature. He met with I.A. Richards who managed to blend Psychology and literary criticism" (Dews, 1970, p11). Looking not at literature as a medium for portraying human behavior but rather a way in which to analyze it, he developed this concept in Verbal Behavior. Skinner's interest in literature was facilitated by his marriage to Yvonne Blue in 1936, who was an English major. He taught a psychology of literature course and did a statistical analysis of a hundred of Shakespeare's sonnets kin which he found that although an occasional line might have as many as four stressed initial s's such lines occured almost exactly as often as one would predict from chance. From 1941-1945, the final draft of Verbal Behavior was written. Then in 1953 he wrote Science and Human Behavior, and in 1957 Schedules of Reinforcement(Dews, 1970).

"The "baby box" was Skinners attempt at mechanizing the care of a child, prompted by the birth of his second child. This box would maintain temperature of the baby allowing them to only wear a diaper. Through a linen-like surface through which warm air rises, moved by convection or a fan, depending on the outside temperature. Their second daughter, Deborah, used the baby box for 2.5 years. Skinner's satisfaction with the box was published in an article he had written in the Ladies Home Journal, now many babies have been raised in what is called an Aircrib" (Dews, 1970, p12).

"The article entitled The Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms (1945), was a result of a dinner party conversation Skinner had with some friends in Minneapolis. Following the paper, to his surprise he began to write Walden Two in 1948. It began as a design for community living. It was based on the unoriginal utopian strategy of having a few people visit a community. This being the quickest work Skinner ever wrote, only taking seven weeks"(Dews, 1970, p13). Essentially this work was an avenue for self-therapy. Young Skinner In 1945, Skinner headed the Psychology department at the University of Indiana. Here, he experimented with Pigeons reaction times, differential reinforcement of slow responding, two operanda, and matching-to-sample. Which are mostly reported his 1950 paper, "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?" (Dews, 1970).

It is often said that behaviorists do not view themselves as they view their subjects. Contrary to this, Skinner believes that his behavior in writing Verbal Behavior was exactly what the book discusses. He is as much interested in himself as he is rats and pigeons. Skinner's struggled to not deceive himself, to avoid using rhetorical devices and metaphors. Unlike most psychologists of this time, he avoided constructing an impressive psychological theory from his research or imposing a hypothesis after a study was completed.

Skinner was never highly influenced by critical reactions, he is not interested in the right or wrong because they are either effective or ineffective, and arguments of no avail. For that reason he is not interested in psychological theories, rational equations, or other verbal systems that are required to be proven right.

Following the principles of Bacon, Skinner rejects verbal authority, stating, "I have studied nature not books asking questions of the organism rather than those who have studied the organism."... "Observation overemphasizes stimuli; emperimentation includes the rest of the contingencies which generate repertoires" (Dews, 1970, p18).

Time Line
(All Dates for the timeline were gathered from Karen's An Introduction to Behavior Theory and It's Applications)
1904 Born March 20th.
1930 Initiated research in reflexes.
1930-31 Received Harvard Fellowship.
1936 Married Yvonne Blue.
1938 The Behavior of Organisms was published.
1942 Awarded the Warren Medal by the Society of Experimental Psychologists.
1945 Skinner took over the Psychology Department at the University of Indiana where he developed the Teaching Machine and Air crib
1948 Walden Two was published.
1948 Skinner began his research with pigeons.
1949 Elected president of the Midwestern Psychological Association
1950 (Late 1950's) Psychology: A study of a science
1953 The Analysis of Behavior; American Psychologist.
1956 Fixed interval schedule of reinforcement described.
1957 Ferster and Skinner published Schedules of Reinforcement which described relative performances under CRF to a VR, FI, or VI schedules.
1957 Introduced the term "Verbal Behavior".
1966 Skinner introduced the concept of critical period in reinforcing an event.
1966 Elected president of the Pavlovian Society.
1968 Skinner identified the critical characteristics of programmed instruction.
1971 Published Beyond Freedom and Dignity.
1972 Received the Humanist of the Year Award by the American Humanist Association.
1974 Retired as Harvard's Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology.
1983 Published Enjoying Old Age.
1990 Skinner died on August 18th.

Dews, P.B. (1970). Festschrift for B.F. Skinner. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, pp 1-27.
Hothersall, D. (1995). History of Psychology, 3rd ed., McGraw-Hill: NY.
Karen, R. (1974). An Introduction to Behavior Theory and its Applications. New York: Harper and Row, pp. 24-30, 46, 53, 64, 81, 84-90.

Selected Publications:
(On the conditions of elicitation of certain eating reflexes. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 1930, 16, 433-438.
The Behavior of Organisms. New York: Appleton-Centuty-Crofts, 1938.
The Alliteration in Shakespeare's sonnets: A study in literary behavior. Psychological Record, 1939, 3, 186-192.
Walden Two. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1948.
Some contributions of an experimental analysis of behavior to psychology as a whole. American Psychologist, 1951, 62-63.
Science and human behavior. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1953.
Schedules of reinforcement (with C. B. Ferster). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.
Verbal Behavior. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.
Fixed-Interval reinforcement of running in a wheel (with W.H. Morse). Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1958, 1, 371-379.
The analysis of behavior (a programmed text with J.G. Holland). New York: McGraw-Hill, 1961.
Cumulative record, Revised edition. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1961.
Conditioned and unconditioned aggression in pigeons (with G.S. Reynolds and A.C. Catania). Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 1963, 6, 73-74.
Operant Behavior. American Psychologist, 1963, 18, 503-515.
The Technology of Teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968.
Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1969.
Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New york: Knopf, 1971.

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