Burrhus Frederic “B.F.” Skinner was a psychologist and social philosopher considered to be a pioneer in the field of behaviorism. He founded a separate school of psychology known as “radical behaviorism” which differed considerably from the other schools of psychology. He believed that living beings tend to repeat the actions which they believe give them favourable results. He called this the principle of reinforcement. He was an intelligent, creative, and independent minded individual who often found himself surrounded by controversy due to the nature of his works. He was of the view that free will was an illusion and vehemently denied that humans possessed any freedom or dignity. He was also an inventor who is credited to have invented the operant conditioning chamber which is used to study behaviour conditioning. He designed the air crib, a temperature and humidity controlled crib for taking care of babies. This proved to be his most controversial invention and he was heavily criticized for inflicting cruelty upon small babies. A prolific writer, he authored 180 articles and more than 20 books, the best known of which are ‘Walden Two’ and ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’. Throughout his life he had served as a professor in various colleges and left a profound impact on in the field of education.
- Skinner was born in Pennsylvania to a lawyer father William and his wife Grace. He had a comfortable childhood and loved to invent things. He became an atheist at a young age.He dreamed of becoming a writer and attended Hamilton College in New York with this goal in mind. However, he could not fit in at the college due to his intellectual attitude. He completed his B.A. in English literature in 1926.He enrolled at Harvard University from where he received his M.A. in 1930.He tried writing a novel after his graduation but was soon disillusioned with his literary skills. A chance encounter with John B. Watson’s ‘Behaviorism’ inspired him to shift his focus to the study of psychology.Career
- He received his PhD from the Harvard University in 1931 and served as a researcher till 1936.While he was at Harvard he began working on building the operant conditioning chamber. Also known as the Skinner box, it is an apparatus used to study operant conditioning and classical conditioning in animals.After leaving Harvard in 1936 he became an Instructor at the University of Minnesota. He was made an Assistant Professor in 1937 and Associate Professor in 1939. He remained in this position till 1945.He was appointed as a professor in Indiana University in 1945 and was also chosen as the Chairperson of the psychology department. He left after serving there for three years.He returned to Harvard University as a tenured professor in 1948 and taught there for the rest of his life.He founded a separate school of psychology known as ‘radical behaviorism’. His psychological work is based on operant conditioning, and he believed that living organisms possess no free will and will repeat behaviour which gives them a favourable outcome.He designed the teaching machine, a device to facilitate learning for a broad range of students. The machine could administer a curriculum of programmed instruction, provide students with questions and reward each correct answer in order to motivate them.He wrote a work of fiction, ‘Walden Two’, a utopian novel in 1948. It was a controversial book as Skinner rejected the concepts of free will, spirit, and soul. He stated that human behavior is determined by genetic and environmental variables and not by free will.In 1957, he published his book ‘Verbal Behavior’ in which he analyzed human behavior through the use of language, linguistics and speech. It was a purely theoretical work that was backed by little experimental research.His very famous book ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity’ was released in 1971. In this work he promoted his own philosophy of science and what he called cultural engineering. The book became a New York Times bestseller.Major Works
- He invented the operant conditioning chamber which helps in studying behaviour conditioning in animals by teaching them to perform certain actions in response to a particular stimuli. These chambers are used in a number of research fields to study animal behaviour and psychology.His school of psychology, radical behaviorism, is applied in several diverse fields in the contemporary society like management, clinical practice, animal training and education. His theories also help in formulating therapies for autistic children.Awards & Achievements
- He received a gold medal from the American Psychological Foundation in 1971.He was honoured with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Psychology Association for his tremendous contribution to the field of psychology in 1990.Personal Life & Legacy
- He married Yvonne Blue in 1936. The couple had two daughters, Julie and Deborah. His daughter Julie is an author and educator.The B.F. Skinner Foundation was formed in 1988 with his support to promote the science founded by him. His daughter Julie is the president of the foundation.He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989 and died of the disease in 1990.Trivia
- The philosopher and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky was his biggest critic.The pigeon was his favourite experimental animal.
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