An Introduction to B.F. Skinner

The late B.F. Skinner was a famous behavioral psychologist whose work included some very controversial operant conditioning. (Operant conditioning is different than Pavlovian conditioning in that it involves voluntary subjects.) He sought to find a way to condition humans and society to be happier and more self-actualized. Although his work is highly regarded amongst many scholars, he is probably most famous for the strange rumors his experiments inspired.

B.F. Skinner was originally a writer, earning a BA in English literature in 1926. After graduating, he moved to Greenwich Village to live as a writer. It was during that time that he started to notice the behaviors of others and became more interested in studying and experimenting with that. So, Skinner decided to attend Harvard University and in 1931, received a Ph.D. in psychology.

Skinner’s main research involved radical experiments on the conditioning of humans’ behavior. His method was different than what had been used before in that he was not punitive with his subjects. Skinner believed that punishment was not an effective tool in conditioning people to change. He pointed to prisoners in confinement to prove his point as they often failed to be rehabilitated by their punishment.

Walden Two is Skinner’s most famous piece of fiction and is still standard reading amongst many psychology, philosophy, and literature students. The book describes an intentional community that was designed and built with the intentions of being a utopia. People are raised from birth in this book to be conditioned for utopian living. Skinner emphasizes equality, harmony, and community rearing of children in Walden Two. A reader is introduced to the infamous “skinner box” in this novel.

A “skinner box” is the term used for something B.F. Skinner invented for babies and toddlers. It is an enclosed crib that has its own air conditioning, heating, and humidity control. Because the box has its own little climate, children are able to feel as secure as they were in their mother’s womb and can wear nothing but a diaper. It is intended to make the children feel as comfortable and independent as possible. Many rumors have circulated about this box because Skinner used it on his own children.

People have said that Skinner kept his daughter in a “skinner box” and studied her like a lab rat, causing her psychological damage and resulting in her suicide. This rumor is only partially true. Yes, Skinner put his daughter in a “skinner box”, but she is alive and well and claims the box had positive effects, even if it was a bit strange. The rumor of Skinner’s daughter being driven mad is still widely circulated to this day.

Skinner’s work was controversial, but that hasn’t kept him from being recognized by his professional community. He is still being studied in colleges all over the world and there have been real-life intentional communities modeled after Walden Two. His work earned many prestigious awards in his lifetime, including the National Medal of Science, Humanist of The Year, and the first Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology. The latter was given to Skinner days before his death in 1990.

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