The Legacy of Burrhus Frederic Skinner


B. F. Skinner is probably most remembered for the invention of what came to be called the “Skinner Box” which was a box he used in his operant conditioning controlled experiments. Challenging the traditional conditioning of Pavlov and other psychologists he based his ideas on not the reward itself, but the ability of the animal or human to find his own reward or to solve his own problem, thus increasing his autonomy with the environment at large. Thus a rat put into this box could only get food if he pressed a lever. The rat hungry for food would run around the box looking for food and experimenting with every device within the problem solving box and upon pressing the correct lever would receive food. Therefore the rat when hungry again would learn that if he pressed this lever he would get food. This was an experiment in learning and problem solving. The rat solved his problem of finding food. Therefore this type of problem solving is called operant conditioning. The subject or rat operates on the environment to receive his reward, the food.

B. F. Skinner raised his second daughter as an infant in a “Skinner Box.” The box contained a controlled environment, which included air conditioning, temperature control, a soundproof compartment where the baby can play in only a diaper without blankets or clothing. This esp. designed Skinner Box for babies was called an aircrib. It also offered freedom from rashes and colds. He also in old age made a Skinner Box for himself.


Burrhus Frederick Skinner (1904-1990) was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania where he lived a happy and stable childhood until he went to college. He wanted to become a writer but felt that he had miserably failed in that area. He was also somewhat of a rebel who liked to play hoaxes in college and he was warned the day of graduation that if he didn’t behave he would not graduate. He however did graduate but dismayed with his seeming lack of ability in writing he enrolled at the graduate school of Harvard as a Psychology student, having never taken any Psychology courses previously. Once he finally discovered his field was Psychology he excelled in writing books on Psychology. In 1938 he wrote The Behavior of Organisms which became one of the main books to bring us into the world of modern psychology. In 1953 he wrote his basic textbook on behavioral psychology entitled Science and Human Behavior.

After graduating from Harvard with his PhD, B. F. Skinner completed several postdoctoral fellowships and then went on to teach at the University of Minnesota from 1936 to 1945. He Taught at Indiana University from 1945 to 1947. He then returned to Harvard as the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University.

In the last years of his life he built his own personal “Skinner Box” which was “a controlled environment that provided positive reinforcement.” His Skinner Box contained a yellow plastic tank where he slept and contained only a mattress, a few shelves of books, and a small TV. He had a strict sleeping, working, and positive self-reinforcement schedule that he maintained to his dying day and delivered his last paper 8 days before he died at the age of 86.

He is most remembered for his books Walden Two, a novel, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Walden Two is a utopian society that offers a revolutionary method for the raising of children. His idea was that children should be trained from an early age in a positive environment with trained professionals rather than parents who most times knew nothing about the raising of children. In this way, totally unfit parents could also be weeded out. Beyond Freedom and Dignity became a national best seller. Walden Two was a million copy best seller.


In all of his written works, his main focus is operant conditioning and positive or negative reinforcement. Operant conditioning means that one’s behavior operates on the environment. Or that the subject exerts some control over the environment rather than the environment being completely in charge. He was concerned with the environmental variables that control our behavior and felt that we should have input into how we can have some control over these variables. He spoke of determinism vs. free will and discussed how concrete explanations regarding these ideas can lead to trouble. We do not totally have free will and we can not fully control the environment. But by learning various ways of controlling the environment we can improve the state of mankind.

Behavior modification or reinforcement techniques are used today in many ways such as increasing the social skills of developmentally disabled or retarded populations, controlling aggressive behavior, the improving of study habits, losing weight programs, quitting smoking, and the control of psychotic behavior.

Reinforcement and operant conditioning exists all around us in everyday life. We are operant when we walk, talk, kiss, sing, dance, write, etc. The conditioning comes in the type of reinforcement we receive in return for how we operated on the environment. In the joyful acceptance of a kiss in return we have received positive reinforcement.

Behavior is more readily changed through positive reinforcers and can be extinguished with negative reinforcement such as no reinforcement whatever.


B. F. Skinner received the following awards for his work in Psychology:
* The Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, 1958, the American Psychological Association (APA).
* The National Medal of Science, 1968, by the United States Government for distinguished contributions to Science, the highest honor for Science.
* Gold Medal Award, 1971, by the American Psychological Foundation; also appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
* Presidential Citation for Lifetime Contribution to Psychology, 1990, APA.


B. F. Skinner became a prolific writer of books on psychology. He wrote the following books:
Science and Human Behavior (1953)
Verbal Behavior (1957)
Schedules of Reinforcement (1957 (written with C. B. Ferster)
Cumulative Record (1961)
The Technology of Teaching (1968)
Contingencies of Reinforcement (1969)
The Analysis of Behavior (1961) (written with G. C. Holland)
Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)
About Behaviorism (1974)
Particulars of My Life (1976)
Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978)
The Shaping of a Behaviorist (1979)
A Matter of Consequences (1983)
Enjoy Old Age (1983)(written with M. E. Vaughan)
Upon Further Reflection (1987)


B. F. Skinner’s ideas on operant conditioning and behavior modification techniques are widely recognized by the scientific community and have a great impact on the thinking and research of members of many disciplines. He also has many critics in many fields. Many of his principles derived from his operant conditioning experiments on lower animals have resulted in the use of these principles for the behavior modification of various human problems in society today and perhaps more should be done in this area. And the use of some of his principles should be studied more completely.

His type of study has been referred to by critics as radical behaviorism that was mainly focused on the study of responses, and describing observable behavior patterns.

However, the ideas behind most of B. F. Skinner’s principles were mainly designed as ways to make society a better place for all people, with mankind becoming more autonomous and better operants in their environment.

Teachers, all other educators, and parents esp. would do well to review the principles of learning formulated in the laboratories of B. F. Skinner.

Morgan, Clifford T., King, Richard A., Introduction to Psychology, McGraw Hill Inc., NY, 1971.
Rickman, Richard M., Theories of Personality, Brooks/Cole Publishing Company, Pacific Grove, CA, 1989, pgs. 421-456.
Shultz, Duane P., Schultz, Sydney Ellen, A History of Modern Psychology, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich Inc., 1992, pgs. 349-363.
Skinner, B. F., Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Bantam/Vintage, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1971.
Skinner, B. F., Walden Two, The Macmillan Company, NY, 1967.