Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 - August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist.

He was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.

Skinner was mainly responsible for the development of the philosophy of radical behaviorism and the further development of behavioral techniques in psychology resulting in behavior analysis, an off-shoot of psychology which aims towards developing a unified field theory of animal and human behavior based on principles of learning. He demonstrated operant conditioning and developed this technique in contrast to classical conditioning. Important areas included shaping behavior, punishment, positive and negative reinforcement, and effect of such conditioning on future behaviors.

Superstition in the Pigeon

One of Skinner's most famous and interesting experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior". He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they continued to perform the same actions:

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return. ("'Superstition' in the Pigeon", B.F. Skinner, Journal of Experimental Psychology #38, 1947 [1])

Skinner suggested that the pigeons believed that they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that the experiment also shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's luck at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if he were controlling it by twisting and turning his arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else. (Ibid.)

See also: Supernaturalization

Skinner is popularly known mainly for his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity.

Walden Two describes a visit to an imaginary utopian commune in the 1950s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world due to their practice of scientific social planning and operant conditioning of children.

Beyond Freedom and Dignity advances the thesis that obsolete social concepts, like "freedom" and "dignity", are threatening the survival of the human species and, again, advocates widespread operant conditioning of human beings to ensure productive and happy citizens.

Skinner wrote many books. A list is below.

  • About Behaviorism
  • The Analysis of Behavior: A Program for Self Instruction by James G. Holland & B. F. Skinner
  • The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis
  • Beyond Freedom and Dignity
  • Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis
  • Cumulative Record: A Selection of Papers (this book includes the authentic account of the much-misrepresented "Baby in a box device).
  • Enjoy Old Age
  • A Matter of Consequences: Part Three of an Autobiography
  • Notebooks (book) by B. F. Skinner & Robert Epstein (Ed.)
  • Particulars of My Life: Part One of an Autobiography
  • Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior
  • Reflections on Behaviorism and Society
  • Schedules of Reinforcement by C. B. Ferster & B. F. Skinner
  • Science and Human Behavior
  • The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part Two of an Autobiography
  • Skinner for the Classroom by R. Epstein (Ed.) & B. F. Skinner
  • The Technology of Teaching
  • Upon Further Reflection
  • Verbal Behavior
  • Walden Two

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