Skinner, B. F.


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Burrhus Frederick Skinner was born in 1904 in Pennsylvania, USA. He completed his BA (in English literature) in 1926 and his PhD in 1931 from Harvard. He died in Massachusetts in 1990. Skinner's first 23 years of life were full of 'haphazard passions with little overall plan'. Such passions included building various inventions (including a steam cannon and a system of pulleys and strings to help him remember to hang up pyjamas. After completing his studies in English literature, in 1926 Skinner embarked on a career as a writer (which lasted one year) before beginning his graduate studies in psychology at Harvard.
During his PhD studies, Skinner put his early inventiveness to good use, building and refining the 'Skinner box' to provide a controlled environment for the study of learning using rats. The invention of the Skinner box permitted an enormous saving in time and effort: a number of animals could be run in parallel with relatively little effort by the psychologist. His invention of a cumulative recorder to work alongside the Skinner box meant that the apparatus could be essentially free-running, the psychologist returning after a session to find the records.
Skinner's own version of radical behaviourism differed significantly from the traditional stimulus-response version promoted by Watson and others. The focus of Skinner's work was very much on instrumental conditioning and in particular the special class termed 'operant conditioning'. This was in distinction to the type of classical conditioning studied by Pavlov. Skinner at first tried to fit the notion of 'stimulus-response' (S-R) to his results and to develop associated theories. However, he found that this approach was not very productive and he abandoned it in favour of a largely non-theoretical and purely objective observation of behaviour.
Skinner's interest in applying his work to the design of societies was expressed in his novel Walden Two (1948) and in Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), both of which received much attention (and in some cases considerable criticism for their espousing of behaviorist tenets). Skinner's interest in language culminated in the publication of Verbal Behaviour (1957). Noam Chomsky's savaging of this book is often highlighted as a critical point in the shift of psychology from a behaviourist to a predominantly cognitive paradigm.