The Legacy of Burrhus Frederic Skinner

“Everything we do is shaped by our experience.” B.F. Skinner (1904-1990)

Skinner didn’t believe the mind existed; he believed the mind was only a matter of language and that it was the brain that processed learned behavior through a system of rewards, punishment and reinforcement.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner is regarded today as one of the greatest influences on western psychology and is known as the father of Operant Conditioning.

His childhood was filled with adventure, inventions, entrepreneurship and literature.

B.F. Skinner became a builder and an inventor as a child and this skill was a great asset later in his research at Harvard. He built his own apparatus for his experiments, and designed and built the Skinner box for his behavioral experiments at Harvard where he received his doctorate degree in 1931.

While he was at Harvard, Skinner was largely unsupervised in his experiments. Harvard was following the psychoanalytic philosophy at that time, while Skinner, undetected, set out in the opposite direction to become a strict behaviorist with no interest in introspective psychology.

Skinner began his experiments using a box that he built, in which rats learned to press a lever to receive a reward, the reward being food that was dispensed when the rat pressed the lever. Punishment consisted of removing rewards and reinforcement either added or removed an element from the existing system to elicit strong response. He called this Operant Conditioning.

Skinner modified his experiments and principles to incorporate learning principles for humans and was highly influential in changing the ideas in existing classrooms across America with his Teaching Machine.

The Teaching Machine was an innovative device that provided rapid feedback (reward) for each screen of problems that students answered. Unfortunately the Teaching Machine came before technology was ready for it.

Skinner was a prolific writer and while he didn’t succeed in his early career as a writer, he produced a number of publications that found success two of which were controversial.

Walden II. In this book, children were cared for by a community, instead of by individual parents, in a setting of about 1000 members, while mothers and fathers both worked. It almost sounds prophetic.

Another book is titled, Beyond Freedom and Dignity where Skinner suggests giving up individual freedoms to advance to an ideal society.

Skinner is an enigma to me. He worked tirelessly to promote learning using his principles to make a better, more educated society. He deserves his fame and honor in behavioral psychology, but I wonder about his agenda.

Perhaps Skinner was reinforcing the idea that we humans are only products of operant behavior, and of shaping by the world, and no more.

Sources: (A Science Odyssey)