B. F. Skinner's Life, Theories, and Influence on Psychology

Skinner studied operant conditioning and believed in radical behaviorism

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B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist known for his impact on behaviorism. In a 2002 survey of psychologists, he was identified as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century.

B. F. Skinner himself referred to his philosophy as "radical behaviorism." He suggested that the concept of free will was simply an illusion and, instead, believed that all human action was the direct result of conditioning.

Learn about Skinner's many contributions to psychology—one of the most well-known being operant conditioning, his theory of learning—his numerous inventions and publications, along with his biography to better understand who B. F. Skinner was.

B. F. Skinner's Contributions to Psychology

Skinner's most notable discoveries or contributions to the field of psychology include:

  • The operant conditioning process (Skinner's theory of learning)
  • The notion of schedules of reinforcement
  • Introduction of response rates as a dependent variable in research
  • The creation of the cumulative recorder to track response rates

B. F. Skinner also proposed that emotions could be translated into a person's predisposition to act in specific ways. For example, if someone experiences the emotion of anger toward someone else, they are more likely to exhibit behaviors such as yelling at the other person or maybe even acting out against them physically.

Skinner's remarkable legacy has left a lasting mark on psychology and numerous other fields, ranging from philosophy to education. While behaviorism is no longer a dominant school of thought, his contributions remain vital today.

For instance, mental health professionals often utilize Skinner's operant techniques when working with clients. Teachers also frequently use reinforcement to shape behavior in the classroom. Even animal trainers rely heavily on B. F. Skinner's techniques to train dogs and other animals.

B. F. Skinner's Theory of Learning: Operant Conditioning

According to B. F. Skinner's theory of learning, our behaviors are developed or conditioned through reinforcements. He referred to this process as operant conditioning, with operant referring to any behavior that acts on the environment and leads to consequences.

Operant behaviors (actions under our control) differ from respondent behaviors. Skinner described respondent behaviors as anything that occurs reflexively or automatically—such as jerking your hand back when you accidentally touch a hot pan.

Skinner's idea of operant conditioning influenced thoughts about child development, or that a child's behavior could be impacted through positive and negative reinforcements. It also contributed to the behavioral theory of personality, explaining that we respond in certain ways based on our learned experiences.

Skinner's ABCs of Behaviorism

B. F. Skinner's theory of learning says that a person is first exposed to a stimulus, which elicits a response, and the response is then reinforced (stimulus, response, reinforcement). This, ultimately, is what conditions our behaviors.

To make this process easier to remember, the ABCs of behaviorism were developed. The ABCs are antecedent (stimulus), behavior (response), and consequence (reinforcement).

Reinforcement

In B. F. Skinner's theory of learning, reinforcement plays a critical role in behavior development. Reinforcement is any event that strengthens a certain behavior and it can be positive or negative in nature.

Positive reinforcement includes actions or events that strengthen a response by providing a stimulus for certain behaviors, such as giving a child a reward or praise for cleaning their room. Negative reinforcement also strengthens a response, but by the removal of an unfavorable outcome, such as the child cleaning their room to avoid being grounded.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Skinner further described schedules of reinforcement in his operant conditioning research. These schedules determine when specific behaviors are reinforced (either based on the number of responses or time) and impact how strong a learned behavior becomes.

Skinner's four schedules of reinforcement are:

Punishment

Punishment can also play a role in the learning process, according to B. F. Skinner. Punishment is described as the application of an adverse outcome in an effort to decrease or weaken a specific behavior.

Punishment may involve presenting a negative reinforcer—such as a spanking, scolding, or the imposition of a prison sentence—which some refer to as positive punishment. Or it can involve the removal of a positive reinforcer, such as taking away a favorite toy, also known as a negative punishment.

B. F. Skinner's Inventions 

Skinner developed quite a few devices in his time. His inventions include the Skinner box, the cumulative recorder. the baby tender, and teaching machines.

Skinner Box

During his time at Harvard, B. F. Skinner became interested in studying human behavior in an objective and scientific way. He developed what he referred to as an operant conditioning apparatus, which later become known as a Skinner box.

The Skinner box was a chamber that contained a bar or key that an animal could press in order to receive food, water, or some other form of reinforcement. Pigeons and rats were often utilized as subjects in studies using this device.

Cumulative Recorder

It was also during his time at Harvard that B. F. Skinner invented the cumulative recorder, a device that recorded responses as a sloped line. In looking at the slope of the line (which indicated the rate of response), Skinner saw that response rates depended upon what happened after the animal pressed the bar.

That is, higher response rates followed rewards while lower response rates followed a lack of rewards. The cumulative recorder device also allowed Skinner to see that the schedule of reinforcement influenced the rate of response.

Using this device, B. F. Skinner found that behavior did not depend on the preceding stimulus as John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov maintained. Instead, behaviors were dependent on what happens after the response. Skinner called this operant behavior.

Baby Tender

In 1943, B. F. Skinner invented the "baby tender." The baby tender was an enclosed heated crib with a plexiglass window. Skinner created this device in response to his wife's request for a safer alternative to traditional cribs.

Ladies Home Journal printed an article on the crib with the title "Baby in a Box." This contributed, in part, to some misunderstanding over its intended use. Further misunderstandings developed when, in her 2004 book Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century, author Lauren Slater mentioned an oft-cited rumor that the baby tender was actually used as an experimental device.

The rumor was that Skinner's daughter served as a subject and that she committed suicide as a result. Slater's book indicated that this was nothing more than a rumor, but a later review of the book mistakenly stated that it supported the claims. This led to an angry and passionate rebuttal by Skinner's daughter, Deborah, who was very much alive and well.

Teaching Machine

After attending his daughter's math class in 1953, B. F. Skinner also developed an interest in education and teaching. During these appearances, he noted that none of the students in the class received any type of immediate feedback on their performance.

Some students struggled and were unable to complete the problems, while others finished quickly but really didn't learn anything new. Skinner believed that the best approach would be to create a device that would shape behavior, offering incremental feedback until the desired response was achieved.

The device created by B. F. Skinner was a math teaching machine that offered immediate feedback after each problem. Although the initial device did not actually teach new skills, eventually, Skinner was able to develop a machine that delivered incremental feedback and presented the material in a series of small steps until students acquired new skills, a process known as programmed instruction.

Skinner later published a collection of his writings on teaching and education titled The Technology of Teaching.

Biography of B. F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, and raised in the small town of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. His father was a lawyer and his mother a homemaker, and he grew up with a brother who was two years his junior. Unfortunately, his younger brother Edward died at the age of 16 due to a cerebral hemorrhage.

B. F. Skinner later described his Pennsylvania childhood as "warm and stable." As a boy, he enjoyed building and inventing things—a skill he would later use in his own psychological experiments.

Writer to Psychologist

During high school, Skinner started to develop an interest in scientific reasoning, from his extensive study of the works of Francis Bacon. He went on to receive a B.A. in English literature in 1926 from Hamilton College.

After earning his undergraduate degree, in a period of his life that he would later refer to as the "dark year," B. F. Skinner decided to become a writer. During this time he wrote a dozen short newspaper articles and quickly grew disillusioned with his literary talents, despite receiving some encouragement and mentorship from the famed poet Robert Frost.

While working as a clerk at a bookstore, Skinner happened upon the works of Pavlov and Watson, which became a turning point in his life and career. Inspired by these works, B. F. Skinner decided to abandon his career as a novelist and entered the psychology graduate program at Harvard University.

Early Career

After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, Skinner continued to work at the university for the next five years, thanks to a fellowship. During this time, he continued his research on operant behavior and operant conditioning. He married Yvonne Blue in 1936, and the couple went on to have two daughters, Julie and Deborah.

Skinner took a teaching position at the University of Minnesota following his marriage. This was during the height of World War II and Skinner became interested in helping with the war effort. He received funding for a project that involved training pigeons to guide bombs since no missile guidance systems existed at the time.

In "Project Pigeon" as it was called, pigeons were placed in the nose cone of a missile and trained to peck at a target that would direct a missile toward an intended target. Although Skinner had considerable success working with the pigeons, the project never came to fruition since the development of radar was also underway.

In the end, the project was eventually canceled. It did lead to some interesting findings, however, and B. F. Skinner was even able to teach the pigeons to play ping-pong.

Later Life and Career

In 1945, Skinner moved to Bloomington, Indiana, and became the Psychology Department Chair at the University of Indiana. In 1948, he joined the psychology department at Harvard University, where he kept an office even after his retirement in 1974.

Drawing on his former literary career, Skinner used fiction to present many of his theoretical ideas. In his 1948 book Walden Two, he described a fictional utopian society in which people were trained to become ideal citizens through the use of operant conditioning.

His 1971 book Beyond Freedom and Dignity made B. F. Skinner a lightning rod for controversy since his work seemed to imply that humans did not truly possess free will. His 1974 book About Behaviorism was written, in part, to dispel many of the rumors about his theories and research.

B. F. Skinner was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989. Just eight days before he died, he was given a lifetime achievement award by the American Psychological Association and delivered a 15-minute talk to a crowded auditorium as he accepted the award. He died on August 18, 1990.

B. F. Skinner's Awards and Recognitions

Among the many recognitions that B. F. Skinner received were:

  • 1966 - Edward Lee Thorndike Award, American Psychological Association
  • 1968 - National Medal of Science from President Lyndon B. Johnson
  • 1971 - Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation
  • 1972 - Humanist of the Year Award
  • 1990 - Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology Award, American Psychological Association

B. F. Skinner's Publications

Skinner was a prolific author, publishing nearly 200 articles and more than 20 books. His research and writing quickly made him one of the leaders of the behaviorist movement in psychology. His work also contributed immensely to the development of experimental psychology.

Some of Skinner's publications include:

  • Skinner, B. F. (1935) Two types of conditioned reflex and a pseudo type. Journal of General Psychology, 12, 66-77.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1948) 'Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1950) Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity
  • Skinner, B. F. (1989) The Origins of Cognitive Thought. American Psychologist, 44, 13-18.
3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. B. F. Skinner Foundation. Biographical information.

  2. Pérez-Almonacid R. A non-mediational approach to emotions and feelings. Front Psychol. 2019;10:181. doi:10.3389/fpsyg.2019.00181

  3. B. F. Skinner Foundation. Pigeon ping pong clip. YouTube.

Additional Reading

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is an author and educational consultant focused on helping students learn about psychology.