Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990), better known as B. F. Skinner, was an influential American psychologist who dedicated his life to furthering and teaching radical behaviorism, which is his “philosophy of the science of behavior.” According to Skinner, our actions are dependent upon the consequences of past actions. If an act results in negative consequences, then there’s a high change we won’t engage in that act again; on the other hand, if an act results in positive consequences, then odds are we’ll repeat the act. This philosophy differs from that of methodological behaviorism: Skinner’s version accepts thoughts, emotions, and other “private events” as causes of behavior. In Skinner’s words:

    “What is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind, or mental life, but the observer’s own body. This does not mean, as I shall show later, that introspection is a kind of psychological research, nor does it mean (and this is the heart of the argument) that what are felt or introspectively observed are the causes of the behavior. An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection. At the moment we must content ourselves, as the methodological behaviorist insists, with a person’s genetic and environment histories. What are introspectively observed are certain collateral products of those histories.”

Today, in honor of his birthday, we thank B. F. Skinner for dedicating his life to psychology and remember his many contributions to the field. Because of him, many others developed a love for psychology too. So, thanks B. F. Skinner! And a very happy birthday to you.

History and Background

Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania to his parents Grace and William Skinner. However, he later moved to New York where he attended Hamilton College with the hopes and intentions of becoming a writer. After receiving his Bachelor of Arts in English literature, he moved again, this time to Massachusetts to attend Harvard University. It was here that he met a fellow student who encouraged Skinner to make an experimental science in the study of behavior. This resulted in Skinner’s inventing a prototype for the Skinner Box, which allowed him to study operant conditioning.

Upon his graduation from Harvard, Skinner stayed there as a researcher for five years before becoming a teacher at University of Minnesota and later at Indiana University. In 1948, he returned to Harvard as a tenured professor and taught there until his retirement in 1974. Fifteen years later, in 1989, Skinner was diagnosed with leukemia and passed away a year later. Just 10 days before his death, however, he accomplished one last thing: he was given the lifetime achievement award by the American Psychological Association.

Notable Inventions

  • Operant Conditioning Chamber (AKA, the Skinner Box): Skinner used this box to study operant conditioning by delivering food to a given animal (rat or pigeon) when they pressed on a “manipulandum” and reinforcing their responses.
  • Cumulative Recorder: This invention records simple repeated responses, which Skinner used to track the rate of responses in his operant chamber experimentation. Other experimenters have used this invention for similar use, but a standard laboratory computer has since stolen popular opinion.
  • Teaching Machine: The purpose of this mechanical device was to teach a curriculum of programmed learning. Teaching machines were used with a range of students, from preschool age to adulthood, as well as educational purposes, such as reading and music.

Influential Quotes

“Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.”

“A failure is not always a mistake, it may simply be the best one can do under the circumstances. The real mistake is to stop trying.”

“The real problem is not whether machines think, but whether men do.”

“A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best he learns how to avoid punishment.”

“The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.”

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement. Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.”

“When you run into something interesting, drop everything else and study it.”

“I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.”

“The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurring again.”

“The only geniuses produced by the chaos of society are those who do something about it. Chaos breeds geniuses. It offers a man something to be a genius about.”