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B.F. Skinner

“To say that a reinforcement is contingent upon a response may mean nothing more than that it follows the response. It may follow because of some mechanical connection or because of the mediation of another organism; but conditioning takes place presumably because of the temporal relation only, expressed in terms of the order and proximity of response and reinforcement. Whenever we present a state of affairs which is known to be reinforcing at a given drive, we must suppose that conditioning takes place, even though we have paid no attention to the behavior of the organism in making the presentation.”

– B.F. Skinner, “Superstition’ in the Pigeon” (p. 168)

B.F. Skinner (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In the 20th century, many of the images that came to mind when thinking about experimental psychology were tied to the work of Burrhus Frederick Skinner.  The stereotype of a bespectacled experimenter in a white lab coat, engaged in shaping behavior through the operant conditioning of lab rats or pigeons in contraptions known as Skinner boxes comes directly from Skinner’s immeasurably influential research.

Although he originally intended to make a career as a writer, Skinner received his Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1931, and stayed on as a researcher until 1936, when he departed to take academic posts at the University of Minnesota and Indiana University.  He returned to Harvard in 1948 as a professor, and was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology from 1958 until he retired in 1974. 

Skinner was influenced by John B. Watson’s philosophy of psychology called behaviorism, which rejected not just the introspective method and the elaborate psychoanalytic theories of Freud and Jung, but any psychological explanation based on mental states or internal representations such as beliefs, desires, memories, and plans. The very idea of “mind” was dismissed as a pre-scientific superstition, not amenable to empirical investigation. Skinner argued that the goal of a science of psychology was to predict and control an organism’s behavior from its current stimulus situation and its history of reinforcement. In a utopian novel called Walden Two and a 1971 bestseller called Beyond Freedom and Dignity, he argued that human behavior was always controlled by its environment. According to Skinner, the future of humanity depended on abandoning the concepts of individual freedom and dignity and engineering the human environment so that behavior was controlled systematically and to desirable ends rather than haphazardly.

 In the laboratory, Skinner refined the concept of operant conditioning and the Law of Effect. Among his contributions were a systematic exploration of intermittent schedules of reinforcement, the shaping of novel behavior through successive approximations, the chaining of complex behavioral sequences via secondary (learned) reinforcers, and “superstitious” (accidentally reinforced) behavior.

Skinner was also an inveterate inventor. Among his gadgets were the “Skinner box” for shaping and counting lever-pressing in rats and key-pecking in pigeons; the cumulative recorder, a mechanism for recording rates of behavior as a pen tracing; a World-War II-era missile guidance system (never deployed) in which a trained pigeon in the missile’s transparent nose cone continually pecked at the target; and “teaching machines” for “programmed learning,” in which students were presented a sentence at a time and then filled in the blank in a similar sentence, shown in a small window. He achieved notoriety for a mid-1950s Life magazine article showcasing his “air crib,” a temperature-controlled glass box in which his infant daughter would play. This led to the urban legend, occasionally heard to this day, that Skinner “experimented on his daughter” or “raised her in a box” and that she grew up embittered and maladjusted, all of which are false.

B.F. Skinner was ranked by the American Psychological Association as the 20th century’s most eminent psychologist.


B. F. Skinner. (1998).  Public Broadcasting Service.  Retrieved December 12, 2007, from:

Eminent psychologists of the 20th century.  (July/August, 2002). Monitor on Psychology, 33(7), p.29.

Skinner, B. F. (1947).  ‘Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

Skinner, B. F. (1959) Cumulative record. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.

Bjork, D. W. (1991). Burrhus Frederick Skinner: The contingencies of a life.  In: Kimble, G. A. & Wertheimer, M. [Eds.]  Portraits of Pioneers in Psychology. 

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