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B. F. Skinner: life and work of a radical behaviorist

B. F. Skinner: life and work of a radical behaviorist

May 10, 2021

What we mean by Psychology It can be very broad. It is a field of study and intervention in which a large number of theoretical and practical proposals are framed about issues not so similar to each other, and which has historically given birth to a large number of theories Y proposals about human behavior .

Biography of B. F. Skinner

However, not all of these streams of Psychology have been ascribed to scientific method with the same force: some seem to be essentially related to philosophy, while others only conceive the study of psychological processes as something accessible from the science .


This second tradition of Psychology owes much of its existence to a researcher called Burrhus Frederic Skinner , Manager revolutionize the investigation of human action through its radical behaviorism .

The beginning of his career

B. F. Skinner was born in March 1904 in a small town in Pennsylvania, United States. Encouraged by the creative possibilities of prose, during his youth he set out to create a career as a writer , but he gave up on his intentions when he realized that he did not have the facility for it. He decided, however, that studies in Psychology could give him a broader perspective on how human beings are and how they act, which is why he began to study this discipline at Harvard.


This renewed enthusiasm did not last long. When he arrived at the university, he found himself with an underdeveloped psychology focused on private mental processes, some disconnected ideas about the human mind and very abstract theories about the states of consciousness that were more related to philosophy than to the scientific study of the behavior.

Towards a scientific psychology: the influence of John Watson

Because it was observable human behavior that B. F. Skinner aspired to understand. Influenced by the behavioral psychologist John B. Watson , believed in the importance of developing experimental psychology and leaving behind psychoanalysis and theories about the mind based on simple common sense. However, the use of the scientific method was not usual in the studies in Psychology taught at Harvard.

If she did not give up her academic and professional career, it was thanks to Fred S. Keller, who at the end of the 20s was one of the young promises of behaviorism at Harvard. Fred Keller convinced Skinner that it was possible to make Psychology a science , and soon after they both got their Ph.D. in that discipline. That small meeting, in addition to consolidating a friendship between the two Freds that would last for decades, made it possible for Frederic Skinner to become one of the most important figures in Scientific Psychology.


Psychology according to B. F. Skinner

Skinner developed his studies within the methods and philosophy of behaviorism, a tradition of young psychology at the time that rejected introspective methods as a way of studying and modifying the mind. This same concept, that of "the mind", seemed to Skinner as something too confusing and abstract to be taken into account, and is That is why he placed his object of study in the purely observable behavior .

The fact of maintaining this approach based purely on the empirical evidence it is what made neither the methods nor the object of study of psychology that this researcher studied were the same as those of psychoanalysts, focused on introspection and whose approach to the study of the psyche does not resist the Popperian principle of falsifiability.

In the rivalry established between mentalist psychology and behaviorism, B. F. Skinner strongly opted for the second option in pursuit of making psychology a behavioral science.

The birth of Radical Behaviorism

Skinner did not want psychology to fully embrace the scientific method simply so that his field of studies would be better considered by having the endorsement of science. This researcher he sincerely believed that internal mental processes are not responsible for originating human behavior, but external and measurable factors .

B. F. Skinner believed, in short, that the proposals and hypotheses of psychology should be checked exclusively through objective evidence , and not through abstract speculations. This theoretical principle was shared by behavioral psychologists in general, but B. F. Skinner differed from most of them in a fundamental aspect.

While certain researchers who at the beginning of the 20th century were attached to the current of behaviorism took behavior as an indicator of methodological objectivity to create explanatory models of human psychology that included some non-physical variables, Skinner believed that the behavior itself was in itself the beginning and the end of what should be studied in psychology. In this way, rejected the inclusion of non-physical variables in the investigations of what psychology should be for him.

The term "radical behaviorism," coined by Skinner himself, it served to name this kind of philosophy of behavioral science . In opposition to methodological behaviorism, the radical behaviorism takes to its ultimate consequences the principles of behaviorism that had already developed researchers like John B. Watson or Edward Thorndike. That is why, according to this philosophical position, the concepts that refer to private mental processes (as opposed to observable behavior) are useless in the field of psychology, although their existence is not denied.

Skinner and operant conditioning

B. F. Skinner is, of course, one of the greatest referents of behaviorism, but he was not a pioneer of this psychological approach. Before him, Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson had described the fundamentals of classical conditioning in animals and humans respectively. This is important, since initially behaviorism was based on learning by associations of stimuli as a method to modify behavior, and classical conditioning allowed to establish relationships between stimuli and responses in a way that could predict and control behavior.

For Skinner, however, the classic conditioning was little representative of the learning potential of the human being , since it could practically only exist in very controlled and artificial environments in which conditioned stimuli could be introduced.

The importance of operant behavior

Contrary to what other behaviorists thought, Burrhus he believed that it is the operative behavior, and not the respondent behavior, the most common, universal and versatile kind of behavior , which means that at the time of modulating the behavior, the consequences matter more than the stimuli that precede it.

The results of the actions are fundamental, says Skinner, since it is from these when the true usefulness or otherwise of the actions is revealed. A behavior on the medium is considered to be operative because it has a series of verifiable consequences , and it is these responses from the environment (including in this category also other living beings) that are altering the frequency with which that behavior or a similar one is reproduced.

So, B. F. Skinner basically uses the form of associative learning known as operant conditioning, based on the increase or decrease of certain behaviors depending on whether their consequences are positive or negative, such as giving incentives to children when they perform their tasks.

The Skinner boxes

Skinner experimented with the behavior of animals based on the principles of operant conditioning. For this he used environments in which he tried to have total control of all variables to be able to observe clearly what was affecting the behavior of the animal.

One of those types of artificial environments was the so-called "Skinner box", a kind of rat cage that had a crowbar and a food dispenser . Each time the rat, by chance or deliberately, activated the lever, a piece of food fell to its side, which was a way to encourage the rodent to repeat that act again. In addition, the frequency with which the rat moved the lever was recorded automatically, which facilitated a statistical analysis of the data obtained.

Skinner's box was used as a means to introduce various variables (including electric shocks) and see how they affected the frequency with which certain behaviors occurred. These experiments they were used to describe certain behavior patterns based on operant conditioning and to test the possibility of predicting and controlling certain actions of animals . Today, many spaces used to experiment with animals are called Skinner boxes

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the great polemicist

One of the consequences of professing radical behaviorism is having to deny the existence of free will . In the book Beyond freedom and dignitySkinner clearly expressed in writing this logical consequence of the philosophical principles on which it was based: if it is the environment and the consequences of the acts that shape the behavior, the human being can not be free. At least, if by freedom we understand indeterminacy, that is, the capacity to act independently of what happens around us. Freedom is, then, nothing more than an illusion far removed from reality, in which each act is caused by triggers alien to the will of an agent who decides.

Mind you, Skinner believed that human beings have the ability to modify their environment to make it determine it in the desired way. This persecution is just the other side of the coin of determination: the environment is always affecting us in our behaviors, but at the same time everything we do also transforms the environment. Therefore, we can make this loop of causes and effects gain some dynamics that benefit us, giving us more possibilities of action and, at the same time, a greater well-being.

His denial of free will brought harsh criticism

This philosophical position, which today is relatively normal in the scientific community, he felt very badly in a US society in which the principles and values ​​of liberalism were (and are) strongly entrenched .

But this was not the only point of friction between B. F. Skinner and public opinion. This researcher devoted much of his time to inventing all kinds of gadgets based on the use of operant conditioning and he liked to appear in the mainstream media to show his results or proposals. In one of his hits of effect, for example, Skinner came to train two pigeons to play the ping-pon g , and even came up with a system to guide bombs using pigeons that pecked at the mobile target that appeared on a screen.

Public opinion dismissed Skinner as an eccentric scientist

This kind of thing caused B. F. Skinner to gain an image of eccentric character , which was not surprising considering the extremes and away from the common sense of the time that germinated in his conception of what is radical behaviorism. Nor did it help that he invented a kind of crib with adjustable temperature and humidity, which was accompanied by the myth that Skinner experimented with his own daughter of a few months.

For the rest, his opinions on politics and society expressed in his book Walden Two They also did not marry the dominant ideology, although it is true that Skinner did not miss any opportunity to appear in the media to explain and qualify his proposals and ideas.

The legacy of B. F. Skinner

Skinner died of leukemia in August 1990, and he was working until the same week of his death .

The legacy left behind served to consolidate psychology as a scientific discipline to , and also revealed information about certain learning processes based on the association.

Beyond the mediatic aspect of Skinner, it is unquestionable that he became a scientist who took his work very seriously and devoted a lot of time and meticulousness to generate knowledge backed by empirical verification. The importance of his legacy has survived the behaviorism of his time and has come to strongly influence Cognitive Psychology and the emergence of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies.

Therefore it is not strange that at present, 25 years after his death, B. F. Skinner is one of the most claimed figures from the Scientific Psychology .


Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner (May 2021).


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