Skinner, B. F.

Skinner, B. F. (Burrhus Frederic)

(1904–90) psychologist, educator, author; born in Susquehanna, Pa. Forgoing his early goal of being a writer, he earned his doctorate in psychology at Harvard (1931). He stayed on there to continue his research with the so-called Skinner box he developed to test the effects of behavior modification on laboratory animals. He then taught at the University of Minnesota (1936–45) and Indiana University (1945–48). During World War II he worked for the Office of Scientific Research and Development on such projects as training pigeons to guide missiles (never achieved). In 1945 he gained considerable attention when he published an article about an "air crib," a mechanically controlled environment in which his daughter had spent much of her first two years. He then returned to teach and research at Harvard (1948–74) and gained a reputation as the chief American exponent of the behavioral approach to psychology, especially operant conditioning, based on laboratory experiments, chiefly with pigeons, that produced behavior modification through reinforcement (as by the release of food pellets) of certain learned behaviors. The popular application of the theory, as in the "teaching machine" device with its programmed instructions, seemed bizarre at the time it was introduced but in the current age of computer-assisted instruction (CAI) seems merely to have arrived ahead of its time. His many professional writings include Science and Human Behavior (1953) and Verbal Behavior (1957). In books such as Walden Two (1948), a novel, and Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), his often controversial views on social engineering reached a broader public than did his professional writings. After his retirement from Harvard he accepted a position at Oxford University and before his death composed a record of his work and life in a multivolume autobiography.