M. Greengrass: This month marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of influential behaviorist B.F. Skinner, the first psychologist to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from APA and a key shaper of the evolution and practice of psychology in the modern world.
“[His work on behaviorism] opened a completely new approach to psychology that nobody had ever heard of,” says Charles Brewer, PhD, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Psychology at Furman University. “The work he did with pigeons and rats in the laboratory has been applied more widely in real-world applications than any other psychologist’s,” he adds.
After receiving an undergraduate degree in literature and trying to make a living as a writer in New York City, Skinner went to Harvard University’s psychology department for his graduate studies. He worked closely with the university’s new department of physiology because he was more interested in animal behavior than in internal mental processes.
Skinner built on the behaviorist theories of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson as he studied the connection between stimuli and observable behavior in rats, which led to his eponymous Skinner box. With its levers and food pellets, the box allowed precise measurement and control of experimental conditions.
Skinner received his PhD from Harvard University in 1931 and spent several years at the University of Minnesota and the University of Indiana, but he returned to Harvard in 1948, remaining there for the rest of his career. During World War II, Skinner convinced the military to fund his research–the famous Project Pigeon–to train pigeons to guide bombs and torpedoes. Skinner favored pigeons over rats because they live longer and he found them easier to train and handle.
Skinner’s animal research underscored the importance of consequences (i.e., rewards or punishments), and of breaking tasks into smaller parts and rewarding success on these small parts, in creating behavior change.
He believed the methods could be used to train humans–by presenting new subject matter in a series of graduated steps with feedback at each step. Modern computer-based instructional methods are based on his findings.
According to Michael Wertheimer, PhD, emeritus professor of psychology at the University of Colorado at Boulder, “The main spotlight on Skinner’s work was during the period from about 1950 to about 1980, but ever since the late 1970s it has shifted to cognitive phenomena and theories.” That behavioral analysis like Skinner’s has been marginalized in recent years is detrimental to the field, in the view of Donald Dewsbury, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Florida.
Still, the fact remains that B.F. Skinner is a household name, and his theories will always be an important part of psychology, says Brewer. “If you want to know whom students will be reading about in another 100 years, it will be Skinner,” he says.