B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) may have been the most significant behavioral psychologist of the twentieth century. The antithesis of the ivory tower scientist, Skinner was famous for his applications of the theory of positive reinforcement. He promoted such applications in his popular writing, including his utopian novel, WALDEN TWO (1948), and the highly controversial BEYOND FREEDOM AND DIGNITY (1971), as well as his social inventions, which included the baby tender and teaching machines.
In his biography of Skinner, Bjork apparently set two goals for himself. The first was to understand Skinner’s family, youth, and education, with emphasis on the psychological, social, and intellectual context. The second was to explain why many of Skinner’s applications were ultimately rejected by the American people. Bjork has achieved these goals. On one hand, he provides real insight into the Skinner’s formative years in small-town America. On the other, he demonstrates how Skinner’s ideas regarding the application of behavioral psychology were perceived by many Americans as threatening the very essence of this country—individual freedom and autonomy.
The primary shortcoming of the biography is its lack of attention to Skinner as an academic. Although Skinner spent some forty years on university faculties, Bjork provides only a slight sense of Skinner as colleague, and almost none of Skinner as teacher of undergraduates and graduate students.
In spite of this limitation, this is an important book for historians of postwar America.