Skinner, B(urrhus) F(rederic) 1904-1990
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904–1990) is considered by many to be the most influential psychologist of all time and by some to be one of the most influential people in history. A research scientist, author, and philosopher, his work has had a lasting impact on psychology, education, psychotherapy, psychopharmacology, philosophy, and even the business world.
Skinner was born March 20, 1904, in the small town of Susquehana, in Pennsylvania, the son of a lawyer father and a housewife mother. He earned his undergraduate degree at Hamilton College in New York, intending to become a professional writer. Soon discouraged, a book about behaviorism by psychologist John B. Watson inspired him to enter graduate school at Harvard University in 1928. There his extraordinary mechanical skills allowed him to invent a series of devices for studying rat behavior. Ultimately one of those devices, subsequently known as the Skinner Box, gave him unprecedented control over ongoing behavior, summarized
in his first book, The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis (1938).
Behaviorists inspired by the work of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) had focused on relatively simple stimulus-response reflexes, whereas Skinner was able to show a high degree of orderliness in more common, fluid, everyday behavior, which Skinner called operant behavior. Skinner showed that a great deal of behavior that appeared to be spontaneous and voluntary was the product of a “history of reinforcement,” and he also showed how a reinforcer (a stimulus that strengthens the behavior it follows) could be delivered in optimal ways to alter future behavior. In a major breakthrough, Skinner showed that entirely new behaviors could quickly be taught simply by selectively reinforcing successive approximations to that behavior, a process he called shaping.
During the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, Skinner extended his laboratory discoveries to a number of practical human domains. During World War II he trained pigeons to guide missiles for the U.S. military (a project never fully implemented). In 1948 Skinner published a novel called Walden Two, in which he speculated about how a science of behavior might be used to create an ideal community. During the 1950s, in work with psychotic patients, he laid the foundations for modern behavior therapy, a term that was coined by his research team. He also invented sophisticated mechanical teaching machines and developed the first programmed textbook, advances which helped lead the way toward modern computer-aided instruction.
During the 1960s Skinner's students and adherents guided by his numerous essays on education (brought together in 1968 in his book, The Technology of Teaching) developed successful reinforcement-based classroom management techniques, which were subsequently widely used in countries around the world. His work also inspired business professionals to develop new management techniques and incentive systems, and professionals working with developmentally disabled individuals were inspired to develop powerful new training and treatment techniques, which later became standard in virtually all treatment facilities for such individuals.
In its impact on education, Skinner's work is similar to that of Edward L. Thorndike. In the late 1890s, while a graduate student at Harvard, Thorndike conducted animal experiments that convinced him of the enormous power of behavioral consequences, which led to Thorndike's formulation of the Law of Effect, which remains influential in education in the early 2000s. Thorndike's experiments had been relatively crude and were conducted in open chambers. Skinner eventually learned how to conduct such experiments in closed chambers, which eliminated distractions and the need for handling the animals, thus allowing Skinner to determine much more precisely how behavior actually works. It was the precision in Skinner's research that helped lay the foundations for a true science of both animal and human behavior.
See also:Operant Conditioning
Holland, J. G., & Skinner, B. F. (1961). The analysis of behavior: A program for self-instruction. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis (The Century Psychology Series). New York: Appleton-Century.
Skinner, B. F. (1948). Walden two. New York: Macmillan.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.
Skinner, B. F. (1968). The technology of teaching. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Demorest, A. (2005). Psychology's grand theorists: how personal experiences shaped professional ideas. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Nye, R. D. (2000). Three psychologies: perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers (6th ed.). Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.
O'Donohue, W. & Ferguson, K. E. (2001). The psychology of B.F. Skinner. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
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