B. F. Skinner and Behaviorism
B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) was an American psychologist who pioneered the field of behavior analysis and developed the philosophy of radical behaviorism. Skinner is widely known for his experimental work with rats and pigeons, the technologies that he developed (e.g., the operant conditioning chamber or Skinner box, schedules of reinforcement), and the philosophy of radical behaviorism, which underlies and unifies the basic and applied work of behavior analysts. He expanded the scope of his science and philosophy to issues of human culture and survival, spawning the application of his behavioral science to improve the human condition.
At the heart of Skinner’s contribution is operant conditioning, which focuses on the influence of consequences on behavior. As a tool to understand behavior, Skinner developed the concept of the three-term contingency, consisting of the antecedent, the behavior, and the consequence. The antecedent is the environmental condition prior to the occurrence of a particular behavior. When an organism behaves, it interacts with its environment, producing a stimulus change or consequence. When behavior is followed by certain consequences, the strength or probability of that response occurring in the future increases; this is the process of reinforcement. If the probability of behavior decreases following a consequence, the process of punishment is in effect. The three-term contingency occurs within the context of an individual’s current state, with particular establishing operations (e.g., satiation, deprivation) influencing the consequences that will be reinforcing or punishing at a particular moment. See the “Conditioning and Association” entry for an additional discussion of operant conditioning.
For Skinner and the behavior analysts who follow in his tradition, the function of the behavior (i.e., the particular consequence that the behavior produces) is more important than the structure (i.e., topography) of the behavior. Indeed, operant classes are sets of behaviors that have the same function. A great variety of topographically distinct responses can produce the same outcome, even with simple behaviors. Take, for example, a hungry rat in an operant conditioning chamber. In the chamber (the environmental setting), the rat can press a lever (behavior), which produces food (consequence). Although the rat can press the lever in a variety of distinct ways (e.g., with its paws, its nose, its flank), the act of depressing the lever and closing the attached microswitch is the same. Thus, the operant in this case is the lever press; any response that closes the microswitch can be reinforced by the contingent delivery of food to a previously food-deprived rat.
Sometimes, the behavior that increases in strength is not directly related to the production of the reinforcer. Skinner (1948) described this phenomenon as superstition, where a behavior is adventitiously reinforced, and the learner acts as if the behavior that they engaged in was causally related to the outcome. In his classic demonstration, Skinner provided access to food to a hungry pigeon on a time-based schedule, independent of the bird’s behavior. The response that the pigeon happened to be engaging in at the time of food delivery (e.g., stepping, turning) was strengthened, especially with short inter-food intervals. Even though there was not a causal relation between the bird’s behavior and the delivery of the food, the responses were still strengthened, similar to superstition in humans and other animals.
The principles of behavior analysis, including reinforcement and punishment, have cross-species generality. Following in the tradition of Watson (1913), behavior analysts embrace the idea of continuity of species, wherein the laws that govern the behavior of human and nonhuman animals are the same. Skinner (1984) suggested that the operant conditioning process supplements natural selection. Organisms that are able to learn based on the consequences of their behavior are more likely to survive than organisms that are not sensitive to such environmental changes, and the importance of learning may vary across organisms. Furthermore, the stimuli that organisms are likely to be sensitive to are biologically prepared. For example, monkeys may be easily conditioned to show a fear of snakes, but not of flowers (Cook and Mineka 1989). Thus, the phylogenic history of the species influences the stimuli that influences an individual’s behavior.
The Darwinian model of natural selection suggests that the environment applies pressure on species. Given particular environmental conditions, certain organisms are more likely to survive (i.e., have a selective advantage) than others. With differential reproduction, the traits that were advantageous in that environment become more common in the population. Similarly, the Skinnerian behavioral tradition applies selectionist logic to behavior. Instead of focusing on the population of an organism, the radical behaviorist is interested in the population of behavior as the level of analysis. As particular responses are strengthened in a behavioral repertoire (i.e., become more common), other responses necessarily decrease in frequency. This process is exemplified in the process of shaping (e.g., Skinner 1951), wherein successive approximations of a response are differentially reinforced to produce an end goal.
When at a dinner party in 1934, Skinner was faced with a challenge to use behavioral terms to explain why one of his dining companions uttered a particular sentence: No black scorpion is falling on the table (Claus et al. 2007; Skinner 1957; Palmer 2006). As a reply to this challenge, he published Verbal Behavior (1957), a book that describes the application of behavior analysis to language. Unlike other forms of behavior, verbal behavior is reinforced by the response of a listener, rather than by the direct action on the environment. Whereas the word serves as a common unit of analysis for linguists, the functional relations between the verbal responses are more important in verbal behavior. In this conceptual structure, verbal behavior can be organized by its type (e.g., mand, tact, interverbal), and the conditions under which these responses occur can be established scientifically.
Skinner’s work was famously criticized by psycholinguist Noam Chomsky (1959). This book review has been described as overthrowing the behavior-analytic approach to language; Palmer (2006) suggested that some cognitive psychologists “embraced it as a kind of Emancipation Proclamation, a justification for rejecting the methodological constraints of behaviorism” (p. 256), and he described the review as an oft-cited initiating event for the “cognitive revolution” in psychology. As a reply, behavior analysts contend that Chomsky failed to understand Skinner’s book and, therefore, drew erroneous conclusions (cf. MacCorquodale 1970) and that the “cognitive revolution” does not meet the standards of a scientific revolution (O’Donohue et al. 2003).
Despite the concerns that Chomsky raised about the ability for behavior analysts to adequately describe language, the approach Skinner developed has been highly influential in the field of behavior analysis. It has also been highly successful in teaching language skills to individuals with developmental disabilities, including autism. Skinner’s approach to the functional units of verbal behavior (e.g., tacts, mands) allows for these components of behavior to be targeted for separate intervention, building increasingly complex verbal repertoires (Sundberg and Michael 2001). Fortunately for behavior analysts (and the individuals who have benefited from their approach to verbal behavior), their field was strong enough to survive an inflammatory book review (cf. Schlinger 2008).
The Philosophy of Behaviorism
In addition to the empirical work through which Skinner established the principles of operant conditioning and verbal behavior, he also developed the philosophy of radical behaviorism. Chiesa (1994) suggested that radical behaviorism produced “probably the most coherent philosophy of science in psychology today” (p. 7), underlying the science of behavior analysis, including the subdisciplines of the experimental analysis of behavior and applied behavior analysis. This conceptual systematization allows for clear delineation of what behavior analysts study and the methods that they use.
The term behaviorism was first used by John Watson in 1913 to describe his new type of psychological science. The phrase radical behaviorism was used to contrast Watson’s work as an extreme (i.e., radical) departure from other versions of psychology at the time (Schneider and Morris 1987). B. F. Skinner later used the term radical behaviorism to differentiate between the methodological behaviorism of John Watson. Since the mid-1960s, this was the most common label for Skinner’s approach (Schneider and Morris 1987), and his 1974 popular press book, About Behaviorism, was devoted to making this philosophy more broadly understood. Whereas methodological behaviorism ruled out the influence of events that were not directly observable (cf. Watson 1913), radical behaviorism allowed such events to be considered, but instead considered them as behavior (e.g., Skinner 1945, 1974).
The philosophy of behaviorism allows a coherent science of behavior analysis to exist. This science emphasizes the importance of studying behavior as a primary topic of interest rather than as a proxy for some other events or structure (e.g., Chiesa 1994). The goals of behavioral science are to describe, predict, and influence or control behavior. To achieve these goals, certain philosophical assumptions must be met, including determinism, or the notion that given the same initial circumstances, only the same outcomes could occur. Whereas deterministic thinking is a given in sciences like physics or chemistry, it becomes more contentious when applied to the behavior of humans. A primary point of contention is the rejection of free will. In the behavioral perspective, the denial of free will means that behavior of all organisms (human and nonhuman) is caused by the individual’s past experience and the contemporary environment. There is no room in a scientific analysis for causal factors beyond these two. If it was possible for the individual to respond based on free will (i.e., independently of their learning history), there would be no way to predict or control the behavior of those organisms, since any unexplained variability could be attributed to the will of the organism.
Beyond the reliance on determinism, or perhaps because of it, behavior analysts are pragmatic in their work. Following the philosophic tradition of William James, the useful working of procedures and philosophies is of great import to behavior analysts (Lattal and Laipple 2003). The pragmatic approach has defined the research agenda of behavior analysts and shaped their methodology. Interestingly, evolutionary psychologists also cite William James as an intellectual founder (e.g., Suplizio 2007), but the components of his work emphasized by each field differ. Whereas behavior analysts focus on environment-behavior relations, evolutionary psychologists seek psychological mechanisms related to survival (cf. Tooby and Cosmides 1989).
The focus on behavior defines the subject of enquiry in behavior analysis. With this approach, there is an emphasis on behavior of the individual, relying on single-subject or within-subject experimental designs (cf. “Methods and Enduring Impact” entry). For any given organism, behavior analysts believe that behavior is a result of three primary factors: the evolutionary history of the species (phylogeny), the learning history of the individual (ontogeny), and cultural factors. Phylogenic factors influence the stimuli to which an organism might be sensitive and limit the responses that are possible. As much as a human might want to, they will never be able to fly on their own or see ultraviolet light without assistive technology. A parakeet, however, has a distinct advantage in both of these domains. The ontogenic history of the organism encompasses every experience that the organism has, including reinforcement and punishment. Based on their past experiences and the contemporary environment, an individual will act in predictable ways. Skinner suggested that he was not an originator of his behavior (or the science that he developed) but instead that he was a locus for contingencies and evolutionary history to come together to produce the outcome.
The third level of selection that Skinner (1984) described was the cultural practices of the group. This level applies uniquely to human behavior, which is highly sensitive to the behavior of others. Cultural selection allows for the transmission of traits and behaviors across groups of unrelated individuals. Such transmission allows the development of educational practices, religion, scientific behavior, and other mechanisms that support human survival.
Social Applications of Behaviorism
With the ability to predict and influence behavior, Skinner saw the power of his behavioral technology to improve the human condition. He published several influential mass-market books to describe his ideas, including About Behaviorism, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and Walden II. In these works, Skinner was able to reach a broad audience. A central theme of this work was the notion that society was failing in important ways and that the application of the science of behavior analysis could improve the world. The problems that Skinner described included issues of education, population growth, and the distribution of scarce resources. All of these problems reduced, to Skinner, to problems of human behavior. Without changing the way our species behaved, Skinner foresaw the dramatic escalation of these problems to the point where human survival would be threatened. He wrote, “The choice is clear: either we do nothing and allow a miserable and probably catastrophic future to overtake us, or we use our knowledge about human behavior to create a social environment in which we all shall live productive and creative lives and do so without jeopardizing the chances that those who follow us will be able to do the same” (1978a, p. 66).
In Walden II, Skinner described the application of behavioral technologies to create a society in which leisure is abundant, work is divided evenly, and resources are made available to everyone, i.e., the good life is achieved via careful planning and experimentation. Skinner (1978a) noted that the society that he describes involves minimal ownership of property and, therefore, had a lessened environmental impact than contemporary society. The goals in the society he described were to produce pleasant personal interactions via the technology of behavioral science. Practices which this group uses, from education to government, are effective; if a practice does not work, it is abandoned, in an experiment of social design (Skinner 1978b). Although it was a work of fiction, the novel spawned several intentional communities, including Twin Oaks in Louisa, Virginia, and Los Horcones in Sonora Mexico. These communities put into practice Skinner’s ideas presented in his novel (cf. Kincaid 1973), and they continue to exist today.
Following the initial work of Skinner, the application of behavioral technology to a wide array of important problems has expanded exponentially. Crime prevention, education, environmental sustainability, etc. all have benefited from the efforts of applied behavioral science (cf. Biglan 2015). His impact has been far-reaching, and his work has directly improved the lives of individuals around the world.
Skinner’s contributions to psychological science, especially operant conditioning and the philosophy of radical behaviorism, provide a selectionist framework to understand behavior. This framework provides analogues between the Darwinian model of natural selection and the behavioral changes that occur within the life span of an organism. Skinner’s analysis of verbal behavior greatly expanded the application of his science, despite the criticism it faced. His contributions provided the foundations for the science of behavior analysis, including the experimental analysis of behavior and applied behavior analysis. The ultimate goal of Skinner’s science of behavior was to make the world a better place for its contemporary inhabitants and future generations via environmental interventions.
- Biglan, A. (2015). The nurture effect: How the science of human behavior can improve our lives and our world. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications.Google Scholar
- Chiesa, M. (1994). Radical behaviorism: The philosophy and the science. Sarasota: Authors Cooperative.Google Scholar
- Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner’s. Verbal Behavior Language, 35, 26–58.Google Scholar
- Kincaid, K. (1973). The Walden II experiment: The first five years of Twin Oaks Community. New York: William Morrow & Co.Google Scholar
- Skinner, B. F. (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 52(270–277), 291–294.Google Scholar
- Skinner, B. F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Random House.Google Scholar
- Skinner, B. F. (1978a). Walden II revisited. Reflections on behaviorism and society (pp. 56–67). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
- Skinner, B. F. (1978b). Walden (One) and Walden Two. Reflections on behaviorism and society (pp. 188–194). Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar