B. F. Skinner

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Burrhus Frederic Skinner

Burrhus Frederic "B. F." Skinner (March 20, 1904August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist and author. He conducted pioneering work on experimental psychology and advocated behaviorism, which seeks to understand behavior as a function of environmental histories of experiencing consequences. He also wrote a number of controversial works in which he proposed the widespread use of psychological behavior modification techniques, primarily operant conditioning, in order to improve society and increase human happiness; and as a form of social engineering.

Skinner was born in rural Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He attended Hamilton College in New York with the intention of becoming a writer. While attending, he joined Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity, and eventually received a B.A. in English literature in 1926. After graduation, he spent a year in Greenwich Village attempting to become a writer of fiction, but he soon became disillusioned with his literary skills and concluded that he had little world experience, and no strong personal perspective from which to write. During this time, which Skinner later called "the dark year," he chanced upon a copy of Bertrand Russell's recently published book An Outline of Philosophy, in which Russell discusses the behaviorist philosophy of psychologist John B. Watson. At the time, Skinner had begun to take more interest in the actions and behaviors of those around him, and some of his short stories had taken a "psychological" slant. He decided to abandon literature and seek admission as a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University (which at the time was not regarded as a leading institution in that field).

Skinner received a Ph.D. in psychology from Harvard in 1931 and remained at that institution as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and later at Indiana University before returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained there for the rest of his career.

Skinner was granted numerous awards in his lifetime. In 1968, he received the National Medal of Science from President Lyndon B. Johnson. Three years later, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation, and in 1972, he was given the Humanist of the Year Award of the American Humanist Association. Just eight days before his death, he received the first Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology by the American Psychological Association (Epstein, 1997).


[edit] Behaviorism

Main article: behaviorism

Skinner was mainly responsible for the development of the philosophy of radical behaviorism and for the further development of applied behavior analysis, a branch of psychology which aims to develop a unified framework for animal and human behavior based on principles of learning. He conducted research on shaping behavior through positive and negative reinforcement and demonstrated operant conditioning, a behavior modification technique which he developed in contrast with classical conditioning. His idea of the behavior modification technique was to put the subject on a program with steps. The steps would be setting goals which would help you determine how the subject would be changed by following the steps. The program design is designing a program that will help the subject to reach the desired state. Then implementation and evaluation which is putting the program to use and then evaluating the effectiveness of it.

Skinner did not advocate the use of punishment. His main focus was to target behavior and see that consequences deliver responses. From his research came "shaping" which is described as creating behaviors through reinforcing. He also came up with the example of a child's refusal to go to school and that the focus should be on what is causing the child's refusal not necessarily the refusal itself. His research suggested that punishment was an ineffective way of controlling behavior, leading generally to short-term behavior change, but resulting mostly in the subject attempting to avoid the punishing stimulus instead of avoiding the behavior that was causing punishment. A simple example of this, he believed, was the failure of prison to eliminate criminal behavior. If prison (as a punishing stimulus) was effective at altering behavior, there would be no criminality, since the risk of imprisonment for criminal conduct is well established, Skinner deduced. However, he noted that individuals still commit offences, but attempt to avoid discovery and therefore punishment. He noted that the punishing stimulus does not stop criminal behaviour; the criminal simply becomes more sophisticated at avoiding the punishment. Reinforcement, both positive and negative (the latter of which is often confused with punishment), he believed, proved to be more effective in bringing about lasting changes in behavior.

[edit] Superstition in the pigeon

One of Skinner's experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior". He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

—B.F. Skinner, "'Superstition' in the Pigeon", Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947 [1]

Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else.


Modern behavioral psychologists have disputed Skinner's "superstition" explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Subsequent research (for instance, by Staddon and Simmelhag in 1971) failed to replicate his results. Eduardo J. Fernandez of the Department of Psychology of Indiana University sought to follow up on Staddon and Simmelhag's debunking of Skinner's hypothesis and to "further contrast superstitious versus functional interpretations of behavior" in pigeons. In a 2004 paper titled "Superstition Re-revisited: An Examination of Niche-Related Mechanisms Underlying Schedule Produced Behavior in Pigeons," he demonstrated that what Skinner had seen as "superstitious" behaviour was accounted for by the natural foraging behaviours of the species he used as test subjects.

[edit] Social engineering

Skinner is popularly known mainly for his controversial books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Walden Two describes a visit to an imaginary utopian commune in the 1940s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world due to their practice of scientific social planning and the use of operant conditioning in the raising of children.

Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden, champions a lifestyle that does not support war or foster competition and social strife. It encourages a lifestyle of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness, satisfying work and leisure.

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner suggests that a technology of behavior could help make a better society, and the autonomous agent was not the driving force for one's own actions. Skinner offered alternatives to punishment and challenged the people of the future to use modern technology for more than just war, such as building a better society that actually helped people. Many people have argued that Skinner has ulterior motives, such as the believers in the existence of free will who are challenged by his ideas that free will may not exist.

As understood by Skinner, ascribing dignity to individuals involves giving them credit for their actions. To say "Skinner is brilliant" means that Skinner is an originating force. If Skinner is right, he is merely the focus of his environment. He is not an originating force and he had no choice in saying the things he said or doing the things he did. Skinner's environment and genetics both allowed and compelled him to write his book (though this does not entail that the book's claims are untrue, which is a separate issue). Similarly, the environment and genetic potentials of the advocates of freedom and dignity cause them to resist the reality that their own activities are deterministically grounded. J. E. R. Staddon (The New Behaviorism, 2001) has argued the compatibilist position, that Skinner's determinism is not in any way contradictory to traditional notions of reward and punishment, as he believed.

Skinner's types of schedules of reinforcement involved: continuous, interval (fixed or variable), and ratio (fixed or variable).

Continuous reinforcement -consisted of a constant delivery of reinforcement for an action, that every time a specific action was performed the subject instantly and always received a reinforcement. This method is prone to extinction and is very hard to enforce.

Interval (fixed/variable) reinforcement (Fixed)- is when the reinforcement is set for certain times. (Variable)- is when the times between reinforcement are not set, but often differ every time.

Ratio (fixed or variable) reinforcement (Fixed)- deals with a set amount of work needed to be completed before there is reinforcement. (Ratio)- the amount of work needed for the reinforcement differs from the last.

[edit] Rumors

One often-repeated story claims that Skinner ventured into human experiments by raising his daughter Deborah in a Skinner box, which led to life-long mental illness and a bitter resentment towards her father. Accounts of Deborah's supposed suicide in a bowling alley in Montana even made it to scholarly papers.

In fact, the baby tender, air-crib, or "Heir Conditioner," a humorous term for Skinner's baby tender, was heated, had filtered air, with the approximate space of any other child's crib. It was designed to make the baby more confident, more comfortable, less sick, less prone to cry, and so on. Reportedly it had some success in these goals.<ref name="snopes">Snopes.com "One Man and a Baby Box" (accessed 9/26/06)</ref>. Air-cribs were later commercially manufactured by several companies, most successfully by T.M.I. (Teaching Machines Incorporated). Air-cribs of some fashion are still used to this day, and publications continue to dispel myths about, and tout the progressive advantages of Skinner's original.

In 2004, psychologist and author Lauren Slater published a book, Opening Skinner's Box, which mentioned claims that Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Skinner Buzan) unsuccessfully sued her father for abuse, and later committed suicide. In response, Buzan herself came forward and denounced the story as nothing more than outrageous rumors.<ref>I was not a lab rat - Guardian, Friday March 12, 2004</ref>. Buzan wrote, "there's the story that after my father 'let me out', I became psychotic. Well, I didn't. That I sued him in a court of law is also untrue. And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana."<ref name="snopes" />

The Church of Scientology often repeats the rumor about Skinner raising his baby in a box. Freedom Magazine and its online incarnation report that Skinner used a Skinner box on his baby, writing under his picture, "B.F. SKINNER created experimental 'Skinner Boxes' — small, enclosed containers for animals, with signaling levers and food chutes — even fashioning a 'baby box' version to monitor and modify his own infant daughter’s behavior."<ref>Church of Scientology International "Reading, 'Riting and Rats: The Bizarre History of an Education System Trapped in a Maze" Freedom Magazine; Volume 36i1; pages 12-13</ref> The Church of Scientology also has a "Psychiatry and Industry of Death Museum" in Los Angeles, California that repeats the claim about Skinner raising his baby in a Skinner box.[2]

[edit] Political views

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control - a behavioral technology - could solve human problems which were not solved by earlier approaches or were actively aggravated by advances in physical technology such as the atomic bomb. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.

Skinner was sometimes accused of being a totalitarian by his critics. In addition to his aspirations to state design, Skinner was a determinist, believing that all our behavior is profoundly determined and influenced by the environment.

Skinner saw the problems of political control not as a battle of domination versus freedom, but as choices of what kinds of control were used for what purposes. Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment and fear and supported the use of positive reinforcement.

Skinner's book Walden Two presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical work.

Skinner answers a problem that exists in many utopian novels: "What is the Good Life?" Skinner answers that it is a life of friendship, health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile contributions to one's society.

Additionally Skinner felt behavioral technology would offer alternatives to coercion, good science applied right would help society, and we would all be better off if we cooperated with each other peacefully. Skinner's novel has been described by Skinner as "my New Atlantis" referring to Bacon's utopia.

Intellectual opponents, ranging from Noam Chomsky to Ayn Rand, in their attempt to show Skinner wrong, have equated Skinner's philosophic determinism with political oppression. Skinner has often been equated to political and social positions he never espoused and even explicitly objected to.

"When Milton's Satan falls from heaven, he ends in hell. And what does he say to reassure himself? 'Here, at least, we shall be free.' And that, I think, is the fate of the old-fashioned liberal. He's going to be free, but he's going to find himself in hell." -- B. F. Skinner (William F. Buckley, Jr., "On the Firing Line", 87.)

[edit] Trivia

According to a photo caption at the site of Los Horcones community (which was inspired by Skinner's Walden Two), in his youth Skinner used to swim in Thoreau's Walden Pond. <ref name=pond>Los Horcones: a Walden Two Community</ref>

The show Lost mentions Skinner, and its plot may resemble social engineering.

The TV show The Simpsons references Skinner, in an episode where psychiatrist Marvin Monroe asks for $100,000 to buy a kid for his already built "Monroe Box".

In the Simpsons the character Principal Seymour Skinner is actually named after B F Skinner. Many of the early writers of The Simpsons were educated at Harvard University while Skinner was alive.

Skinner is referenced in a further episode of The Simpsons where Principal Skinner tells Lisa that every good scientist is part P T Barnum and part B F Skinner.

[edit] Works

[edit] See also

[edit] References


[edit] External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations related to:

Articles by Skinner:

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B. F. Skinner

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