In This Article B.F. Skinner

  • Introduction
  • Data Sources
  • Indexes and Reference Citations
  • Biographical Works
  • Books on Skinner
  • Appreciations, Awards, and Eminence
  • Philosophy of Science
  • Scientific Methods
  • The Experimental Analysis of Behavior
  • Simulation and Syntheses
  • Philosophical and Theoretical Issues
  • The Biological Sciences
  • Freedom and Dignity
  • Skinner as a Public Intellectual
  • Debates with Contemporaries
  • Misunderstandings, Misinterpretations, and Clarifications
  • The Future

Psychology B.F. Skinner
by
Henry D. Schlinger, Jr., Edward K. Morris
  • LAST REVIEWED: 21 March 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0098

Introduction

No other figure in the history of psychology has contributed so much to the science and theory of behavior, and to psychology as a whole, as B. F. Skinner. His systematic experimental research on operant learning in the early 1930s laid the foundation for a natural science of behavior, which evolved into a unified discipline: behavior analysis. As of the early 21st century, it comprises three branches: an experimental branch (called the “experimental analysis of behavior”) a conceptual branch (“radical behaviorism”), and an applied branch (“applied behavior analysis”). Skinner was almost singlehandedly responsible for founding behavior analysis as a result of his innovative research methods and apparatus for studying the behavior of organisms as subject matter in its own right: that is, not as an index of putative explanatory constructs (e.g., cognitive structures and processes). He was also instrumental in promoting a conceptual and theoretical analysis of behavior through his (1) writings on the philosophy of a science of behavior; (2) interpretations of language; (3) analyses of cultural practices; and (4) discussions of the implications of a science of behavior for such inviolable topics as freedom and dignity. Moreover, Skinner’s discoveries of basic behavioral principles (e.g., reinforcement, extinction, discrimination) and processes (e.g., shaping) in the animal laboratory, led him to suggest their application to real-world problems such as education, the treatment of the developmentally disabled, clinical psychology, drug abuse, and the design of cultures. As a result, he is indirectly responsible for the successful application of behavioral principles to ameliorate a wide range of behavioral problems. His extrapolation of the principles from the animal laboratory to the understanding of human language, as well as his writings on the implications of a natural science of behavior for freedom and dignity, attracted bitter and often ad hominem attacks from others such as academicians and politicians. His work, both experimental and conceptual, has been widely misunderstood and misrepresented. Nonetheless, no other psychologist, either before or since, has influenced psychology and (perhaps with the exception of Freud) American culture as much as B. F. Skinner. The American Psychological Association (APA) recognized these accomplishments by conferring on Skinner its first Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology in August 1990. This acknowledgement was preceded by two other APA awards: the Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award in 1958 and the Gold Medal Award in 1971. In addition, among many other awards, Skinner was given the National Medal of Science in 1968 by President Johnson and the Humanist of the Year Award in 1972 from the American Humanist Association. Small wonder, then, that B. F. Skinner is regarded as the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century.

Data Sources

Data sources about Skinner and his works include websites and archives. The two main websites are the B. F. Skinner Foundation and the Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies. There are two archives with collections of Skinner’s works, mainly the Harvard University Archives (Papers of Burrhus Frederic Skinner), but also a smaller collection at Hamilton College (B. F. Skinner, 1904–1990 Collection), his undergraduate alma mater.

  • B. F. Skinner, 1904–1990 Collection. Hamilton College.

    E-mail Citation »

    The archives at Skinner’s undergraduate alma mater contain memorabilia, articles about, and publications by B. F. Skinner; a letter to B. F. Skinner from Robert Frost; and letters to B. F. Skinner from A. P. Saunders (1926–1936), while Skinner was a graduate student at Harvard and afterward.

  • B. F. Skinner Foundation.

    E-mail Citation »

    This foundation makes Skinner’s publications available at little or no cost, preserves archival materials, and provides awards for young researchers. Two early versions of his 1957 book Verbal Behavior and a PDF version of his 1953 book Science and Human Behavior are also available, with other books by Skinner in the works.

  • Cambridge Center for Behavioral Studies.

    E-mail Citation »

    Functions as a clearinghouse for solutions to behavioral problems and includes some articles about Skinner, many from the journal Behavior and Philosophy.

  • Papers of Burrhus Frederic Skinner: An Inventory. Harvard University Archives.

    E-mail Citation »

    Contains an extensive collection of Skinner’s papers, including his PhD thesis, several books, and extensive correspondence with major figures in the history of psychology, such as E. G. Boring, Clark L. Hull, and E. C. Tolman.

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