B. F. Skinner


Honorary Degree (1970)
Doctor of Science
Location: Bloomington
Presenter: Joseph Sutton


Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, in a small town in Pennsylvania. During his early years as a child and into high school, Skinner dabbled in writing; poems, plays and even a short novel remained unpublished but still influenced him enough to continue writing during college. In 1922, He attended Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, as his family's first college man. He majored in English and wrote for several magazines and the college newspaper. While he did take a few biology courses and at least one philosophy course, psychology was not on his mind yet.

Upon graduation, Skinner moved back home and attempted to write. Referring to this period of time as a "dark year", Skinner is also known to have said he failed ay becoming a writer because he lacked anything of importance to say. The rest of his career would soon prove otherwise, however. At the age of 24, Skinner enrolled in the Psychology department at Harvard University for graduate studies. Having developed a deep interest in relating behavior to experimental conditions, he began experimenting and inventing new equipment to assist in his research. What he found would contradict classical conditioning, in which the stimulus always precedes the behavior (as believed by Watson and Pavlov), replacing it with the new concept of instrumental conditioning, where everything begins with a behavior, rather than the stimulus.

Skinner named it operant behavior. The process of arranging the contingencies of reinforcement responsible for producing this new kind of behavior he called operant conditioning. Because of a fellowship, Skinner was able to spend his next five years investigating not only the effect of following consequences and the schedules on which they were delivered, but also how prior stimuli gained control over behavior-consequence relationships with which they were paired.

By 1936, Skinner married Yvonne Blue and the couple relocated to Minnesota where he began his first teaching job. During this time, his studies appeared in his first book, The Behavior of Organisms, published in 1938. In it, he looks at science behavior and how the analysis of behavior produces data which can be studied, rather than acquiring data through a conceptual or neural process. Behavior is then classified either as respondent or operant behavior, where respondent behavior is caused by an observable stimuli and operant behavior is where there is no observable stimuli for a behavior.

As World War II was ending, Skinner began writing his book Walden Two, a utopian novel that presents mankind's "freedom of choice" as an illusion, as we are all controlled by our environment. It was also during his time in Minnesota that Skinner developed the controversial "baby tender" for the couple's second child; an enclosed and heated crib with a plexiglass window, designed to create a safer sleeping environment.

In 1945, Skinner became the new chair of the psychology department at Indiana University in Bloomington. The field he had started was growing; a year later, the first meeting of the Society of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior was held in Indiana. Twelve years after that, it had a journal, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior. After staying in Bloomington for a few years, Skinner accepted an invitation to return to Harvard, where he stayed for the majority of his career.

Skinner published many books as his research progressed. Verbal Behavior, published in 1957, is an analysis of why we say/think/feel what we do. Concerning the implications behavioral science had for society as a whole, he published Contingencies of Reinforcement in 1969. Two years later produced Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and in response to misrepresentation of his work, About Behaviorism (1974). Skinner also wrote three autobiographical volumes towards the end of his life. After a diagnosis of leukemia in 1989, he kept teaching and writing up until the day he died, one year later.