B. F. Skinner Additional Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

0111200377-Skinner.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: By developing a variety of effective techniques for behavioral modification, Skinner radically transformed the science of psychology and thereby exerted a profound influence in the fields of psychiatry and pedagogy. His ideas, moreover, have been popularized through nontechnical writings of his own, including a utopian novel entitled Walden Two.

Early Life

In the spring of 1902, William Arthur Skinner and Grace Madge Burrhus were married in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He was a twenty-five-year-old attorney with political aspirations, while she was a twenty-one-year-old legal secretary of remarkable beauty. The first of the couple’s two children was born on March 20, 1904, and was formally named Burrhus Frederic Skinner. He was, however, soon called “Fred” by everyone. A second son was born two and a half years later. Mr. Skinner did not believe that children should be baptized until they were old enough to appreciate the full significance of this sacred rite. In the case of his elder son, that day never arrived. Despite all attempts to indoctrinate him into the Presbyterian faith, the boy became a freethinker by the time he reached puberty.

Throughout his twelve years at grade and high school, Fred Skinner proved himself to be academically gifted in a variety of areas. He was extraordinarily adept not only in mathematics and other scientific subjects but also in the humanities. Above all, Skinner loved literature, and he even began to write stories and poems of his own at an early age. Although the public school system in Susquehanna offered no courses in music within its educational curriculum, Skinner nevertheless managed to accrue much expertise in this area as well. His mother, who was an accomplished amateur musician in her own right, arranged for him to take piano lessons early in life, and he later studied the saxophone of his own volition when an opportunity to receive free instruction presented itself. Skinner was sufficiently proficient on both instruments to be paid for performing on them. For a time he was a saxophonist in a jazz band that played at various dance halls and was also a pianist in another group that provided background music for silent films at a local motion-picture theater. In his junior and senior years in high school, furthermore, Skinner discovered the world of art and began to paint watercolors, and draw in charcoal. He thereupon put his artistic talent to use for monetary purposes by lettering advertising show cards. His chief job during his high school years, however, was at a shoe store, where he developed a speciality of fitting arch supports. Throughout his life, Skinner was to retain this penchant for putting his expertise to practical use.

When Skinner was graduated from high school, he ranked second in a class of seven seniors. Oddly enough, both of his parents achieved a similar class ranking at their own respective high school graduations. Much to the disappointment of his mother, Skinner was short in stature when he reached maturity. His bone structure, however, was delicate to the point of being birdlike and was admirably suited to his slender build. Skinner’s facial features were, moreover, both regular and pleasing. These physical traits, including a full hairline and a slim figure, were to change very little throughout the years that followed his graduation from high school.

It had always been assumed that Skinner would go on to college, and he duly matriculated at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, for the purpose of acquiring a bachelor’s degree in English. His college years proved to be socially pleasant and academically profitable. Despite the fact that Skinner never shied away from taking difficult courses, he still managed to maintain a grade point average sufficiently high to qualify him for election to Phi Beta Kappa. Ironically, he had previously written a piece for the college paper in which he contemptuously dismissed the majority of its members as “key chasers.”

During his college years, Skinner’s prime interest lay in creative writing, and to further these skills he went to Vermont in the summer between his junior and senior years for the purpose of studying at Middlebury College’s Bread Loaf School of English. There he met Robert Frost, who lived nearby at Ripton, and the celebrated poet suggested that the young man submit some of his work to him for the sake of a critical appraisal. Upon his return to Hamilton College, he sent Frost three short stories and received a warm letter of encouragement in response. He thereupon resolved to pursue a career as a free-lance writer. After his graduation from Hamilton College in 1926, Skinner moved back into his parents’ house and built for himself a study where he could work undisturbed. About a year later, however, it became evident to him that his writings were totally devoid of significant content. After a feeble attempt to become a journalist, he finally decided to abandon his literary ambitions entirely for the sake of a career in psychology. Admitted as a graduate student at Harvard University for the fall semester of 1928, Skinner first spent a few months in New York’s Greenwich Village, where he led the customary bohemian life, and then toured several countries in Western Europe, part of the time in the company of his parents.

Life’s Work

Skinner had always been interested in human behavior. In his endeavor to become a writer, he read very extensively and gradually came to the conclusion that psychology is superior to literature as a method of investigating this topic. It was, above all, the writings of Ivan Petrovich Pavlov on conditioned reflexes and those of John Broadus Watson on the new psychology of behaviorism that particularly intrigued him. Oddly enough, Bertrand Russell’s articles attacking behaviorism, published in various magazines during the 1920’s, served only to strengthen Skinner’s commitment to this doctrine and its basic premise that animal and human behavior may be explained entirely in terms of responses to objectively observable external stimuli. Skinner henceforth never wavered in his adherence to the tenet that behavior is shaped and maintained by its consequences. Owing to his boyhood fondness for observing animal life and tinkering with mechanical...

(The entire section is 2596 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Bjork, Daniel W. B. F. Skinner: A Life. Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association, 1997. Presents views from both supporters and detractors of Skinner and tries to place Skinner in the larger context of American intellectual life.

Nye, Robert D. The Legacy of B. F. Skinner. Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1992. An excellent short introduction to Skinner’s life and thoughts.

Nye, Robert D. Three Psychologies: Perspectives from Freud, Skinner, and Rogers. 6th ed. Pacific Grove, Calif.: Brooks/Cole, 2000. The most important section contrasts Skinner’s views with those of Sigmund Freud and...

(The entire section is 443 words.)