The Legacy of Burrhus Frederic Skinner

The American psychologist, Burrhus Frederic Skinner, is best known as one of the central figures of 20th Century behaviourist psychology. At the heart of behaviourism is the belief that all of the familiar concepts of our psychological language, such as thought, feeling and intention, for example, do not refer to real causal entities, but rather, are reducible to observable learning processes. His argument is that we react to stimuli rather than consciously act.

In particular Skinner, working at Harvard University, focused on a learning process known as operant conditioning. The fundamental intuition here is that behaviour is shaped mainly by the consequences of previous actions. Organisms begin to associate a behaviour with an outcome and start to perform the behaviour that leads to the desirable outcomes more often.

Skinner performed many experiments on animals such as rats and pigeons using a device that he invented himself, involving levers and rewards that became known as a Skinner Box, although was more properly called an operant conditioning chamber, to demonstrate the point.

It is this placing of psychology on to a hard scientific footing of repeatable experiments and the cutting away of vague, untestable concepts, that is central to Skinner’s legacy. It is about his development of scientific, objective, methodology and a cynicism towards the use of folk psychological language in the scientific study of behaviour.

Through his experiments he discovered the rate of response and developed the use of this concept. He also invented a cumulative recorder. This measures rate of response. It is particularly used in reinforcement learning theory. He also published widely, racking up 21 books and 180 articles that contributed to making him arguably the most influential psychologist of the 20th Century.

In more recent times the black box model of the mind that was created by the behaviourists has been called into question. Whereas the behaviourists, such as Skinner, only dealt in the observables of stimulus and response, present day cognitive scientists look inside the box, and think in terms of information processing models that describe the mind in terms of interlinked functional areas such as short-term memory, long-term memory, perception, and planning, for example. But there is no denying that operant conditioning certainly does play a significant part in learning. Skinner helped people to understand this and also helped to place psychology firmly on a scientific footing, significantly improving its claims to be a true science.