- B.F. Skinner’s Biography
    1904 - 1990

(By C. George Boeree- 1998)

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born March 20, 1904, in the small Pennsylvania town of Susquehanna.  His father was a lawyer, and his mother a strong and intelligent housewife.  His upbringing was old-fashioned and hard-working.

Burrhus was an active, out-going boy who loved the outdoors and building things, and actually enjoyed school.  His life was not without its tragedies, however.  In particular, his brother died at the age of 16 of a cerebral aneurysm.

Burrhus received his BA in English from Hamilton College in upstate New York.  He didn’t fit in very well, not enjoying the fraternity parties or the football games.  He wrote for school paper, including articles critical of the school and the faculty.  To top it off, he was an atheist -- in a school that required daily chapel attendance.

He wanted to be a writer and did try, sending off poetry and short stories.  When he graduated, he built a study in his parents’ attic to concentrate, but it just wasn’t working for him.

Ultimately, he resigned himself to writing newspaper articles on labor problems, and lived for a while in Greenwich Village in New York City as a “bohemian.”  After some traveling, he decided to go back to school, this time at Harvard.  He got his masters in psychology in 1930 and his doctorate in 1931, and stayed there to do research until 1936.

Also in that year, he moved to Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota.  There he met and soon married Yvonne Blue.  They had two daughters, the second of which became famous as the first infant to be raised in one of Skinner’s inventions, the air crib.  Although it was nothing more than a combination crib and playpen with glass sides and air conditioning, it looked too much like keeping a baby in an aquarium to catch on.

In 1945, he became the chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University.  In 1948, he was invited to come to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his life.  He was a very active man, doing research and guiding hundreds of doctoral candidates as well as writing many books.

While not successful as a writer of fiction and poetry, he became one of our best psychology writers. He has, of course, written a large number of papers and books on behaviorism.  But he will probably be most remembered by the general run of readers for his book Walden II, wherein he describes a utopia-like community run on his behaviorist principles.

People, especially the religious right, came down hard on his book.  They said that his ideas take away our freedom and dignity as human beings.  He responded to the sea of criticism with another book (one of his best) called Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).  He asked: What do we mean when we say we want to be free?  Usually we mean we don’t want to be in a society that punishes us for doing what we want to do.  Okay -- aversive stimuli don’t work well anyway, so out with them! Instead, we’ll only use reinforcers to “control” society.  And if we pick the right reinforcers, we will feel free, because we will be doing what we feel we want!

Likewise for dignity.  When we say, “she died with dignity,” what do we mean?  We mean she kept up her “good” behaviors without any apparent ulterior motives.  In fact, she kept her dignity because her reinforcement history has led her to see behaving in that "dignified" manner as more reinforcing than making a scene.

The bad do bad because the bad is rewarded.  The good do good because the good is rewarded.  There is no true freedom or dignity.  Right now, our reinforcers for good and bad behavior are chaotic and out of our control -- it’s a matter of having good or bad luck with your “choice” of parents, teachers, peers, and other influences.  Let’s instead take control, as a society, and design our culture in such a way that good gets rewarded and bad gets extinguished! With the right behavioral technology, we can design culture.

Both freedom and dignity are examples of what Skinner calls mentalistic constructs -- unobservable and so useless for a scientific psychology.  Other examples include defense mechanisms, the unconscious, archetypes, fictional finalisms, coping strategies, self-actualization, consciousness, even things like hunger and thirst.  The most important example is what he refers to as the homunculus -- Latin for “the little man” -- that supposedly resides inside us and is used to explain our behavior, ideas like soul, mind, ego, will, self, and, of course, personality.

Instead, Skinner recommends that psychologists concentrate on observables, that is, the environment and our behavior in it.

August 18, 1990, B. F. Skinner died of leukemia after becoming perhaps the most celebrated psychologist since Sigmund Freud.

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