In establishing a natural science of behavior, developing a philosophy of that science, and advancing their implications for improving the human condition, Burrhus Frederic (B. F.) Skinner became the most eminent psychologist of the 20th century. He was born and raised in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, as American Progressivism and modernism neared their height. He received an AB in English from Hamilton College in 1926 and a PhD in psychology from Harvard University in 1931. He afterward held positions at Harvard (1931-1936), the University of Minnesota (1936-1945), Indiana University (1945-1947), and Harvard again (1947-1974), retiring as Professor Emeritus in 1974, but continuing to work.
Skinner tried making his mark first as a writer, but writing failed him as a means for understanding human behavior. So, he turned to psychology. With mechanical skills and a belief that understanding was based in empirical research, not contemplation, he invented methods and apparatus (e.g., the "Skinner box") with which he discovered the basic principles of voluntary behavior, notably its selection by consequences (e.g., reinforcement). In synthesizing his methods and results with Pavlov's, he established a science of behavior (The Behavior of Organisms, 1938). In adopting and adapting the contributions of Bacon and Mach, he derived a philosophy of the science--radical behaviorism.
While making still further discoveries and advances (e.g., shaping, rule-governed behavior), Skinner extended his science to human behavior. He described an experimental approach to intentional communities (Walden Two, 1948); offered behavioral accounts of human action (Science and Human Behavior, 1953; Verbal Behavior, 1957); applied his science to education and aging (The Technology of Teaching, 1968; Enjoy Old Age, 1983); naturalized ethical, social, and political philosophy (Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971); and founded a system of psychology known as behavior analysis. Behavior was its subject matter, not just what it studied; biology was context for environmental contingencies; and mind was public and private behavior in everyday context (About Behaviorism, 1974).
The behavior analysis of human development was fully influenced by Skinner's work. Bijou applied the style of Skinner's science to the analysis of child behavior (e.g., discriminative responding); Gewirtz extended its content to social development (e.g., attachment); and Baer provided an age-irrelevant concept of development and behavioral cusps as alternatives to age- and stage-based theories. Skinner's contributions extend across the human life span, with their most significant impact today being in the development and validation of empirically based treatments for atypical development (e.g., autism).
B. F. Skinner Foundation, http://www.bfskinner.org
Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.
Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.
Skinner, B. F. (1999). Cumulative record (Definitive ed., V. G. Laties & A. C. Catania, Eds.). Cambridge, MA: B. F. Skinner Foundation.
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