B.F. Skinner

On this date in 1904, behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, and grew up in what he called a "warm and stable" family. He was a child inventor who never lost his interest in invention. Skinner earned his B.A. in English at Hamilton College, New York, then went to Harvard for his Masters and doctorate in psychology (1930, 1931). Skinner moved to Minneapolis when offered a teaching position at the University of Minnesota, where he married and had two daughters. He became chair of the psychology department at Indiana University in 1945, then was recruited by Harvard, where he stayed the rest of his life. His wife, Yvonne, asked him to invent a "safe crib" when expecting their second child, something without bars. Skinner devised a "baby tender" for newborns, encased in soft Plexiglas, and wrote about the invention for a piece in the Lady's Home Journal, which dubbed the crib "Baby in a Box." The contraption later led to great confusion with the "Skinner Box" he had used as an early researcher with rats, but Skinner's daughters attest to having had a loving and normal childhood. Skinner was interested in "operant behavior" and wrote The Behavior of Organisms in 1938. His most famous book, Walden Two (1948), described an egalitarian, communal lifestyle. After sitting in one of his young daughter's math classes, Skinner became convinced that teaching methods should proceed by small steps, where students get feedback before advancing to the next level or question. He proposed a method comparable to tutoring children one-on-one. The Technology of Teaching (1968) has been adapted by some educators as the ideal system under computers and the Internet. Other books include Verbal Behavior (1975), Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), About Behavioralism (1974), and three autobiographical volumes. Not religious, the atheist was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association. D. 1990.

Photo by Silly Rabbit under CC 3.0

“My Grandmother Skinner made sure that I understood the concept of hell by showing me the glowing bed of coals in the parlor stove. In a traveling magician's show I saw a devil complete with horns and barbed tail, and I lay awake all that night in an agony of fear. Miss Graves [a teacher], though a devout Christian, was liberal. She explained, for example, that one might interpret the miracles in the Bible as figures of speech. . . . Within a year I had gone to Miss Graves to tell her that I no longer believed in God. 'I know,' she said, 'I have been through that myself.' But her strategy misfired: I never went through it.”

—B.F. Skinner. Brief autobiography written for E.G. Boring and G. Lindzey's A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 5) (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1967, pp. 387-413).

Compiled by Annie Laurie Gaylor

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