Burrhus Frederick Skinner Research Paper

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After J. B. Watson, the founder of the behaviorist movement, Skinner has been the most influential, and also the most controversial figure of behaviorism. His contributions to behavioral sciences are manifold: he designed original laboratory techniques for the study of animal and human behavior, which he put to work to produce new empirical data in the field of learning, and to develop a theory of operant behavior that led him eventually to a general psychological theory; he further elaborated the behaviorist approach, both refining and extending it, in a version of behavioral science which he labeled radical behaviorism; he formulated seminal proposals for applied fields such as education and therapy and pioneered in machine assisted learning; finally, building upon his conception of the causation of behavior, he ventured into social philosophy, questioning the traditional view of human nature and of the relation of humans to their physical and social environment. This part of his work has been the main source of sometimes violent controversy.

1. Biographical Landmarks

Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 in Susquehanna (Pennsylvania, USA) in a middle-class family and experienced the usual childhood and adolescence of provincial American life. He attended Hamilton College, which was not a particularly stimulant institution to him. He was first attracted by a literary career, which he soon gave up, after traveling to Europe. He turned to psychology, and was admitted at Harvard in 1928. He obtained his Ph.D. in 1931, with a theoretical thesis on the concept of reflex—a first landmark in his reflections on the causation of behavior, an issue he was to pursue throughout his scientific career. He stayed at Harvard five more years, beneficiary of an enviable fellowship, affiliated to the physiology laboratory headed by Crozier. In 1936, he was appointed professor at the University of Minnesota where he developed his conditioning chamber for the study of operant behavior in animals—which was to be known as the Skinner box—and wrote his first book The Behavior of Organisms (1938). In 1945, he moved to Indiana University, as Chairman of the Department of Psychology. In 1948, he was offered the prestigious Edgar Pierce Professorship in Psychology at Harvard University, where he was to stay until his death on August 18, 1990.

Skinner received during his lifetime the highest national awards an American psychologist could receive, and he was praised as one of the most prominent psychologists of the century, in spite of harsh attacks against some of his ideas, from the most opposite sides of scientific and lay-people circles.

Although most of Skinner’s laboratory research was carried out with animal subjects, mainly rats and pigeons, using the so-called operant procedure that will be described hereafter, essentially he was interested, not in animal behavior proper, but in behavior at large, and more specifically in human behavior. After the tradition of other experimental psychologists before him, such as Pavlov and Thorndike, and of most of his colleagues in the behaviorist school of thought, such as Hull, Tolman, or Guthrie, he resorted to animals as more accessible subjects than humans for basic studies on behavior, just as physiologists used to do quite successfully. The relevance of extrapolating from animals to humans is of course an important issue in psychology. However, Skinner’s main concern was obviously with humans, as evidenced by his literary writings in the field of social philosophy—namely the utopian novel Walden Two (1948) and the essay, Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)—as well as by his theoretical endeavors to account for human behavior (Science and Human Behavior 1953) and for verbal behavior (Verbal Behavior 1957).

2. Operant Conditioning And The Skinner Box

The operant conditioning chamber, often called the Skinner box, is a laboratory device derived from Thorndike’s puzzle box and from the mazes familiar to students of learning in rats by the time Skinner started his career. In its most common form, it consists of a closed space in which the animal moves freely; it is equipped with some object that the subject can manipulate easily—be it a lever for rats, or a small illuminated disk upon which pigeons can peck—and with a food dispenser for delivering calibrated quantities of food. By exploring spontaneously this particular environment, eventually with the help of the experimenter in shaping progressively its behavior, the subject will eventually discover the basic relation between a defined response—pressing the lever or pecking the key—and the presentation of a reinforcing stimulus—a small food reward. The basic relation here is between an operant response (i.e., a response instrumental to produce some subsequent event) and its consequence (i.e., the reinforcement), rather than between a stimulus and a response elicited by it, as in Pavlovian or respondent conditioning. This simple situation may be made more complex either by introducing so-called discriminative stimuli, the function of which is not to trigger the response at the manner of a reflex, but to set additional conditions under which the response will be reinforced, or by changing the basic one response-one reinforcement link to some more complicated contingencies, for instance requiring a given number of responses to one reinforcement, or the passing of some defined delay. A wide variety of schedules of reinforcement have been so studied, be it for their own sake as sources of information on the lawfulness of behavior (for instance modern research has applied optimization models borrowed from economics to the study of operant behavior), or as efficient tools for other purposes (such as the analysis of sensory functions in animal psychophysics, of the effects of drugs acting upon the Central Nervous System in experimental psychopharmacology, or of cognitive capacities).

The operant technique presented two important features by the time Skinner developed it from the thirties to the fifties. It emphasized the study of individual subjects through a long period of time rather than groups of subjects for a few sessions, as used to be the case in maze studies and the like. This interest in individual behavior would favor later applications to human subjects in educational and clinical settings. Second, the operations involved soon were automatized by resorting to electromechanical circuits, to be replaced later by online computer control. This led to a level of efficiency and precision unprecedented in psychological research.

3. The Evolutionary Analogy

Skinner captured the essence of operant behavior in the formula ‘control of behavior by its consequences,’ and very early he pointed to the analogy between the selection of the response by the subsequent event and the mechanism at work in biological evolution. An increasingly large part of his theoretical contributions were eventually devoted to elaborating the evolutionary analogy (Skinner 1987). The generalization of the selectionist model to behavior acquisition at the individual level, initially little more than a metaphoric figure, has recently gained credentials with the theses of neurobiologists, such as Changeux’s Generalised Darwinism (1983) or Edelman’s Neural Darwinism (1987), who both have substantiated in ontogeny selective processes previously reserved to phylogeny. One of the main tenets of Skinner’s theory converges with contemporary views in neurosciences.

Skinner extended the selectionist explanation to cultural practices and achievements, joining some schools of thought in cultural anthropology and in the history of science, such as Karl Popper’s selectionist account of scientific hypotheses.

4. Radical Behaviorism

As a behaviorist, Skinner viewed psychology as a branch of natural sciences, more explicitly as a branch of biology, which can deal with its subject matter using the same principles as in other fields of life sciences, be it with specific implementations as required by its particular level of analysis.

Skinner defended a brand of behaviorism quite distinct from the dominant view that prevailed in the second quarter of the century. His radical behaviorism was opposed to methodological behaviorism. For most psychologists, defining their science as the science of behavior, after Watson’s recommendation, did not really mean that they had abandoned mental life as the main objective of their inquiry; rather, they had simply resigned themselves to study behavior, because they had to admit that they had no direct access to mental life. Such methodological behaviorism, in fact, remained basically dualistic. In contrast, radical behaviorism is definitely monist, and it rejects any distinction between what is called mental and behavioral. Skinner is, in this respect, closer to Watson’s view than to the position of other influent neobehaviorists of his generation, although he developed a far more sophisticated view of behavior than Watson’s. For instance, he rejected the simplistic claim that thought is nothing more than subvocal language, and admitted that not all behavior is directly observable. Part of human behavior is obviously private, or covert, and raises difficult methodological problems of accessibility; but this is no reason to give it different status in a scientific analysis.

Skinner vigorously denounced mentalism not so much because it refers to events that would occur in another space and be of a different substance than behavior, but because it offers pseudo-explanations which give the illusion of understanding what in fact remains to be accounted for. Mentalistic explanations, very common in daily life psychology, were still quite frequent in scientific psychology. For example, in the field of motivation, all sorts of behavior were assigned internal needs as causal agents: not only do we eat because we are hungry—a simple statement which, at any rate from a scientist’s point of view, requires qualification—but we exhibit aggressive behavior because of some aggression drive, we interact with social partners because of a need for affiliation, we work to successful and creative outcomes because of a need for achievement, etc. For Skinner, such explanations dispense us from looking for the variables really responsible for the behavior; these variables are more often than not to be found in the environment, and can be traced to the history of the individuals interacting with their environment, social and physical.

Combining this epistemological conception and the results of his empirical research, Skinner developed a theory of human behavior emphasizing the determining role of environmental contingencies on human actions. However, along the lines of the evolutionary analogy, he suggested a model that would account equally well for novelty and creative behavior, as exhibited in art and science productions, and for stabilized, persistent habits adapted to unchanging conditions.

Skinner devoted special attention to verbal behavior, the importance of which in the human species justified special treatment. He presented his book Verbal Behavior as ‘an essay in interpretation,’ proposing a functional analysis of the verbal exchanges composing the global episode of speaker-listener communication. In spite of the violent criticisms expressed by the linguist Chomsky (1959), Skinner’s analysis foreshadowed some aspects of the pragmatic approach adopted some years later by many psycholinguists, aware of the insufficiency of formal grammars to account for central features characterizing the use of language. He viewed verbal behavior as shaped by the linguistic community, and exerting a genuine type of control over an individual’s behavior, distinct from the action of the physical environment. A large part of human behavior is, in his terms, rule governed, that is, controlled by words, rather than shaped by contingencies, that is, through direct exposure to the physical world. Many behaviors can have one or the other origin: avoidance of fire flame can derive from direct experience with fire, or from warnings received during education. Once endowed with verbal behavior, individuals can use it to describe and anticipate their own behavior, or to develop it in its own right, as in literary composition. Were it not for the unfortunate use of the term rule, which makes for confusion with the word as used in formal linguistics and with the notion of coercive control, what Skinner was pointing to was akin to a distinction now familiar to contemporary psychology and neurosciences between topdown vs. bottom-up causation.

5. Education

Skinner’s interests in applications covered three main areas: education, psychological treatment, and social practices at large. He dealt with the first two in a technical manner, developing principles and techniques for improving educational and therapeutic practices. His treatment of the third one is more akin to social philosophy than to scientific application, although he viewed it as very consistently rooted in his scientific thinking. At a time school education in the US was criticized for its deficiencies and for its inefficiency in competing with technological achievements of the Soviet Union, Skinner, as many other American scientists, inquired into the reasons of that state of affairs. Observing what was going on in any normal classroom, including in reputed schools, he concluded that it was violating blatantly most basic principles of learning derived from laboratory analysis of the learning process. Pupils and students were passively exposed to teachers’ monologues rather than actively producing behaviors followed by feedback; there was no attempt to adjust the teacher’s actions to individual level and rhythm of learning; negative evaluation based on mistakes and errors prevailed over positive evaluation pointing to progresses achieved; punitive controls, known to be poorly effective in shaping and maintaining complex behavior, was still widely used; general conditions and teaching practices were far from favorable to developing individual talents and creativity. Such criticisms had been made by others, but Skinner differed from them in the analysis of the causes and in the remedies proposed. He did not question the importance of endowing the students with basic knowledge and skills that they need if they are to engage in more complex and original activities. But he thought such skills could be mastered using more efficient methods than those currently in use in the classroom. This was the origin of teaching machines, a term that would raise strong objections on the ground that machines could not lead but to dehumanising teaching. In fact, Skinner’s idea has been implemented since then in computer assisted learning, which is now widely accepted—with little reference to the pioneering projects of the behaviorist psychologist. The device he designed in the 1950s appears quite primitive compared with modern computers: it was an electromechanical machine—adapted from a record player—built in such a way that it would present in a window to the student successive small frames of the material to be learned, each frame requiring an active answer from the learner. The latter could learn at his or her own individual rhythm, ideally with no or few errors, and eventually reach the end of the program, with the guarantee that the subject matter had been mastered from end to end. Good programs would make exams useless, if exams are just a way to control that the material has been covered and understood. Most important, student and teachers would not waste the few hours they could work together in tasks easily fulfilled using teaching devices; they could devote the time so spared to more constructive activities requiring direct human contact.

In spite of numerous attacks in educational circles, Skinner’s project inspired many applications, such as programmed instruction in book form, until modern computers would offer the elegant solution we know today. It also contributed to the development of individualized teaching approaches that favor methods allowing students to learn at their own pace in an autonomous and active way.

Teaching machines are but one aspect of Skinner’s contribution to education. In a number of his writings, including his utopian novel, Skinner (1968, 1978) did express his reflections on educational issues. He was concerned especially with the disproportion between the resources devoted to education and the poor outcomes; with the tendency to level down individual differences; with the increasing distance between the school environment and real life; with violence in schools, and other matters which remain crucial issues today, with little improvement.

6. Behavior Therapy

Treatment of psychological disturbances was another field of application to which Skinner (1955, 1989) made influent contributions. By the middle of the twentieth century, psychopathology had elaborated refined descriptive systems of psychological disturbances and equally sophisticated explanatory models such as the psychoanalytic theory. Contrasting with these, methods for treatment were scarce and their results poor. Psychoanalytic treatment had limited indications and practical limitations. Rogers’s nondirective therapy, though quite popular, did not provide convincing results. Psychopharmacology was still in the air.

Skinner did not question the classical categorization of mental illnesses, nor did he propose miracle remedies. He simply suggested to look at them as disturbances in behavior, rather than alterations of hypothetical mental structures, such as the psychic apparatus appealed to by psychoanalysis, of which abnormal behavior would be but observable indicators, or symptoms. Consequently, he proposed to attempt to change undesirable behavior by acting directly upon it, rather than upon underlying structures supposedly responsible for it. This approach was not totally new: behavior therapy had its origins in John Broadus Watson’s attempts to treat fear in children by resorting to Pavlovian conditioning and in the theoretical work of some neobehaviorists aimed at transposing some psychoanalytical concepts into learning theory models. What Skinner added was his genuine theoretical elaboration, especially based on his antimentalist stand, and techniques of behavior modification drawn from the operant laboratory, supplementing Pavlovian techniques in use up to then. He also brought into the clinical field a sense of rigor transferred from the laboratory, perfectly compatible with the study of single cases.

Skinner did not practice behavior therapy himself. His influence in the field was indirect, by stimulating pioneering research on psychotic patients and mentally deficient people. He gave a decisive impulse to the development of the behavioral approach to treatment, which soon acquired a major position in clinical psychology and counseling, and which eventually merged, somewhat paradoxically, with cognitively oriented practices into what are labeled behavioralcognitive therapies.

7. Social Philosophy

Skinner’s social philosophy was based in a deep confidence that only science would help us in solving the problems we are facing in our modern societies. What is needed is a science of behavior, which in fact is now available, he thought, and could be applied if only we would be ready to abandon traditional views of human nature. He first expressed his ideas in the novel Walden Two (1948). Written two years after the end of the World War Two, the book describes a utopian community run after the principles derived from the psychological laboratory. It is by no means a totalitarian society, as some critics have claimed. Looked at retrospectively, it is surprisingly premonitory of social issues that are still largely unsolved half a century later. For instance, working schedules at Walden Two have been arranged so that all tasks needed for production of goods and good functioning of the community are distributed among members according to a credit system which results in an average amount of 24 hours per week, avoiding unemployment, abolishing any social discrimination between manual and intellectual work, and leaving many free hours for leisure activities such as sports, arts, and scientific research. Emphasis is put on active practice rather than passive watching, on co-operation rather than competition. The community is not isolated culturally: cultural products from outside such as books or records are of course welcome, but radio programs are filtered to eliminate publicity. Education is active; the school building symbolically has no door separating it from the life and work community; there are no age classes, no humiliating ranking; all learn at their own rhythm, in whatever orientation they feel appropriate, throughout their life time. Women enjoy complete equality with men. Waste of natural resources is avoided. Special charges in the management of the community are strictly limited in time, eliminating any risk of political career.

Similar themes, plus the frightening concerns with pollution, violence, uncontrolled population growth, nuclear weapons, and the like, are further elaborated in the essay Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) and a number of later articles. In an alarming tone, Skinner points to what he feels is the core of our inability to deal with these issues, that is our obstinacy in keeping a conception of human nature which scientific inquiry shows us to be wrong, and which bar any solution to the problems we are confronted with. We still stick to a view of humans as being the center of the universe, free and autonomous, dominating nature, while we are but one among many elements of nature. As a species, we are the product of biological evolution; as cultural groups, the result of our history; and as individuals the outcome of our interactions with the environment. Because we fail to admit this dependency, and draw the consequences of it, we might put in danger our own future. Freedom, autonomy, and merit are no absolute values: they were forged throughout history, and more often than not they are used to disguise insidious controls, the mechanisms of which should be elucidated if we want to develop counter-controls eventually allowing for the survival of our species.

Skinner viewed these various facets of his work as closely related, making for a highly consistent theory of human behavior, in which the critical analysis of social processes in modern society was deeply rooted in the experimental analysis of the behavior of animal subjects in the laboratory. So global an ambition has been criticised, and clearly various aspects of his contribution did not have the same fate. If the operant technique is now a widely used procedure to many purposes in experimental research in psychology and related fields, if his early attempts to build teaching machines appear now as ancestors of computer assisted learning and teaching, if a number of principles of contingencies analysis are now currently put in practice in behavior therapies, radical behaviorism has been seriously questioned and even shaken by the rise of the cognitivist approach in psychology, while Skinner’s social philosophy has been attacked from different fronts both on ideological and scientific grounds.

As most great theory builders of the twentieth century in psychology, from Sigmund Freud and Watson to Jean Piaget, Skinner may be blamed for having reduced the explanation of human nature to a very limited set of concepts and findings, namely those he had forged and observed in his own restricted field of research and reflection, ignoring even other concepts and facts in neighboring fields of psychology, leaving alone of other sciences. It is clear that Skinner has made no attempt at integrating, for example, contributions of developmental or of social psychology, nor those of sociology, cultural anthropology, or linguistics. Such neglects might have been deliberate, legitimated by the will to concentrate on what were, in Skinner’s mind, essential points left out by other branches of psychology or other sciences dealing with human societies. However, they might appear as sectarianism to those who favor an integrative and plurisdisciplinary approach to the complex objects of human sciences. It cannot be decided whether his influence would have been larger or smaller had he adopted a less exclusive stand.


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