Burrhus Frederick Skinner
20 March 1904 - 18 August 1990
Psychologist & Philosopher
A prominent, American psychologist, writer and philosopher of the 20th century, Burrhus Frederick Skinner is connected with "behavioral psychology," and the theory of "operant conditioning," according to which, any living organism receives stimuli that are closely associated with the way the organism operates in its environment, and depending on the nature of those stimuli, the organism is encouraged or discouraged to act in a similar way in the future. He highly contributed in the treatment of phobias, panic disorders and addictions, and introduced new methods to enhance the performance of individual or classroom learning.
Concerning society, Skinner was a visionary who dreamed of a society based on controlled human behavior by applying the method of reward and, to a lesser extent, punishment. In such a community innovative social practices would be implemented, so that everyday problems would be solved, and everybody would feel useful, productive and happy, as he described in his controversial book Walden Two. Equally controversial, his work Freedom and Dignity attracted severe criticism, because of his seemingly totalitarian way of thinking, and because in it, Skinner saw man in a strict scientific way rejecting the existence of free will and the internal existence of purposes and intentions.
The Life of B.F. Skinner
Burrhus Frederick Skinner was born on March 20th, 1904, in Susquehanna, a small town in Pennsylvania, USA. His father was an attorney, and Burrhus only had a younger brother who died at the age of 16. His mother was a strict woman who taught him to be respectful, to have fear of the God, and of what people said about him. When he was a little boy, he not only enjoyed working with his hands, but he also showed signs of literary talent by writing poems and short stories. After finishing high school, he entered the Hamilton College in New York, where he studied philosophy and biology, while he often wrote for the college newspaper and a few other literary magazines.
The works of the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov on conditioned responses, John Watson's and Bertrand Russel's studies on behaviorism made Skinner turn his interest towards psychology, and he decided to enroll in the Psychology Department of Harvard University. He graduated obtaining his PhD in 1931, and stayed at Harvard to do further research until 1936, when he married Yvonne Blue and they moved to Minnesota, where Skinner took his first teaching position and wrote his book The Behavior of Organisms. During the Second World War, Skinner conducted experiments in order to train pigeons to act as a guidance system for missiles, and created technology based on his studies, as they were expressed in The Behavior of Organisms.
The original Skinner Air Crib
In 1943, the Skinners had already a daughter, Yvonne was pregnant again, and as she knew her husband's ability to invent new things, she asked him to create a new kind of crib, where the baby would move more freely and wouldn't need a lot of clothes and blankets to keep warm. Skinner created the famous "Baby Tender" or "Air-Crib," which was heated and covered with plexiglass, and his daughter slept safely and comfortably in it. Later rumors spread that Skinner kept his baby in the crib all the time, and that the girl was so depressed that she committed suicide. However, Skinner and his wife were both loving and affectionate parents, and Deborah Skinner and her sister, Julie lived a normal, happy childhood. Deborah (now Deborah Skinner Buzan) is a well-known artist and lives in London with her husband, while her sister is an Educational Psychologist in the University of West Virginia.
I was not a lab rat - Guardian UK
From 1945 to 1948, Skinner was Chairman of the Psychology Department at Indiana University, and continued his work on the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, while he was writing his controversial novel Walden II, which was published in 1948, and it referred to life in a Utopian community. In 1947, Skinner received and accepted an invitation from Harvard University to join its Psychology Department, where he taught about 400 undergraduate students. His teaching material later formed the contents of his book Science and Human Behavior.
The 50s and 60s were his most productive years, many graduate students went to study with him at Harvard, their collaboration developed the fields of Behavior Therapy and Psycho-pharmacology, and resulted in some excellent scientific books, such as the Schedules of Reinforcements. In 1969, he published his book Contingencies of Reinforcement, and in 1971, his best-seller Beyond Freedom and Dignity came out.
Skinner was a prolific writer and along with his career as a psychologist, he published many books, a lot of articles for psychology journals, and three volumes of autobiography, Particulars of my Life, The Shaping of a Behaviorist, and A Matter of Consequences. Skinner kept active to the end of his life and ten days before his death, on August 18th, 1990, he gave his final talk at the American Psychological Association before a large, captivated audience.
By writing Walden, Henry David Thoreau wanted to depict the benefits of an independent, solitary and totally simple way of life, on the shore of Walden Pond, a life away from social conformity but full of spiritual discoveries and pleasures of self fulfillment. In Walden Two, Skinner's only work of fiction, he wanted to depict the results of behaviorism, if it was used to shape the way of life in a small fictional community away from organized societies. Skinner had started writing his book in 1945, at the end of the second World War, and he felt that the world needed new ideas and solutions to the problems that had been created due to the war, and because he felt that something was terribly wrong in the Western World.
In his story, the Walden II community has about one thousand people who live happily in communal homes, with communal dining halls and the children are raised in communal nurseries, where they play and learn all together, while their parents are away at work, producing and creating what their community needs. People have to work only for 4 hours a day, but they do not receive any salary, as there is no money in Walden Two. No one needs to sell or buy anything, as they all share their products and there is always enough time for leisure activities and games, along with enjoying family life and social relationships. The community is self-governed, and if its members face any problem there is always help available, and everything in the community is subject to change if it is for the benefit of the whole.
Skinner received a lot of criticism for introducing such ideas of a revolutionary change in society, but the book, which became popular in the 60s, keeps fascinating its readers with its originality and literary expression.
Skinner's theory of behaviorism, as well as his studies on different aspects of human and animal reaction to stimuli have received a lot of criticism since the time they were expressed. However, no one can deny the fact that the environment plays a serious role on the development of personality, and the way behavior can be controlled by using the proper reinforcement or reward. Psychologists and educators have both used Skinner's ideas to improve certain disorders or enhance teaching methods, and understand how to approach the learning process more effectively. Whether one agrees or not with Skinner's theories, it is certain that by reading his works they will broaden their understanding on behavior, the way the mind works and how certain situations may be improved by applying Skinner's ideas.