B.F. Skinner

On this date in 1904, behavioral psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pa., 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 master’s and doctorate in psychology.

He 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 Ladies’ Home Journal, which dubbed the crib “Baby in a Box.” The contraption later led to some confusion with the “Skinner Box” he had used as an early researcher with rats.

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, he 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) was adapted by some educators as the ideal, prescient model to employ when using computers to connect to their students via the World Wide Web. Other books include Verbal Behavior (1975), Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), About Behavioralism (1974), and three autobiographical volumes. An atheist, he was named Humanist of the Year by the American Humanist Association in 1972 and was inducted in 2011 into the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry’s Pantheon of Skeptics. He died at age 86 in Cambridge, Mass. (D. 1990)

PHOTO: by Silly Rabbit under CC 3.0.

Freedom From Religion Foundation