Burrhus Frederic Skinner

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Skinner, Burrhus Frederic

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic, 1904–90, American psychologist, b. Susquehanna, Pa. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, and remained there as an instructor until 1936, when he moved to the Univ. of Minnesota (1937–45) and to Indiana Univ., where he was chairman of the psychology department (1945–48). He returned to Harvard in 1948, becoming the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology in 1958. Skinner was the leading exponent of the school of psychology known as behaviorism, which explains the behavior of humans and other animals in terms of the physiological responses of the organism to external stimuli. Like other behaviorists, he rejected unobservable phenomena of the sort that other forms of psychology, particularly psychoanalysis, had studied, concerning himself only with patterns of responses to rewards and stimuli. Skinner maintained that learning occurred as a result of the organism responding to, or operating on, its environment, and coined the term operant conditioning to describe this phenomenon. He did extensive research with animals, notably rats and pigeons, and invented the famous Skinner box, in which a rat learns to press a lever in order to obtain food. Skinner's more well-known published works include The Behavior of Organisms (1938), Walden Two (1948), Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), and About Behaviorism (1974, repr. 1976).


See his autobiography (3 vol., 1984); studies by F. Carpenter (1974) and S. Modgil, ed. (1987).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Skinner, Burrhus Frederic


Born Mar. 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pa. American psychologist; leader of behaviorism.

From 1939, Skinner was a professor at the universities of Minnesota and Indiana and at Harvard. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA. He opposed neo-behaviorism, believing that psychology should be limited to the description of the observable, regular connections between stimuli and responses and the reinforcement of responses. Skinner proposed the concept of operant learning (from “operation”), according to which an organism acquires new responses because it reinforces them, and an external stimulus elicits a response only after such reinforcement. Based on this theory, Skinner distinguished a special group of conditioned reflexes, operant reflexes, which he regarded as fundamentally different from the classical conditioned reflexes discovered by I. P. Pavlov. Experimental psychology has demonstrated the erroneous-ness of such a distinction.

Skinner first studied operant behavior in animals, proposing a number of original methods and devices, including the Skinner box, in which the experimental animal receives reinforcement only after performing an operant, such as pressing a bar.

Skinner proposed concepts of speech acquisition, psychotherapy, and education, based on the idea that the mechanisms of human and animal behavior are identical. He was the originator of programmed learning, his version of which is strongly mechanistic.

Drawing on operant behaviorism’s ideas about the control of human behavior, Skinner proposed Utopian plans for reconstructing society. His proposals evoked sharp criticism from progressive scientists in various countries, including the USA.


The Behavior of Organisms. New York [1938].
Walden Two. New York, 1948.
Science and Human Behavior. New York [1953].
Verbal Behavior. New York [1957].
The Technology of Teaching. New York [1968].
Contingencies of Reinforcement. New York [1969].
Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York, 1971.
“Answers for My Critics.” In H. Wheeler, ed. Beyond the Punitive Society. San Francisco, 1973.


Leont’ev, A. N., and P. Ia. Gal’perin. “Psikhologicheskie problemy pro-grammirovannogo obucheniia.” In the collection Novye issledovaniia ν pedagogicheskikh naukakh. Moscow, 1965.
Tikhomirov, O. K. Struktura myslitel’noi deiatel’nosti cheloveka. Moscow, 1969.
Iaroshevskii, M.G. Psikhologiia v XX stoletii. Moscow, 1971.

M. G. IAROSHEVSKII [23–1504–]

The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.