B. F. Skinner

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Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904August 18 1990) was an influential American psychologist, author, inventor, advocate for social reform [1][2]and poet.[3] He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.[4] He invented the operant conditioning chamber, innovated his own philosophy of science called Radical Behaviorism,[5] and founded his own school of experimental research psychology – the experimental analysis of behavior. His analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior, which has recently seen enormous increase in interest experimentally and in applied settings.[6] He discovered and advanced the rate of response as a dependent variable in psychological research. He invented the cumulative recorder to measure rate of responding as part of his highly influential work on schedules of reinforcement.[7] [8] In a recent survey, Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century.[9] He was a prolific author, publishing 21 books and 180 articles.[10] [11]


B F Skinner was born on March 20 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania to Grace and William Skinner. His father was a lawyer. His brother Edward, two and a half years his junior, died at age sixteen of a cerebral hemorrhage.

He attended Hamilton College in New York with the intention of becoming a writer. While attending, he joined Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. He wrote for the school paper, but as an atheist, he was critical of the religious school he attended.[12] He received his B.A in English literature in 1926. After graduation, he spent a year at his parents' home in Scranton, attempting to become a writer of fiction. He soon became disillusioned with his literary skills and concluded that he had little world experience and no strong personal perspective from which to write.

During this time, which Skinner later called "the dark year," he chanced upon a copy of Bertrand Russell's recently published book An Outline of Philosophy, in which Russell discusses the behaviorist philosophy of psychologist John B. Watson. At the time, Skinner had begun to take more interest in the actions and behaviors of those around him, and some of his short stories had taken a "psychological" slant. He decided to abandon literature and seek admission as a graduate student in psychology at Harvard University. While a graduate student, he invented the operant conditioning chamber and cumulative recorder, developed the rate of response as a critical dependent variable in psychological research, and developed a powerful, inductive, data-driven method of experimental research. During this time Skinner was influenced by the physiologist Crozier.

Skinner received a PhD from Harvard in 1931, and remained there as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and later at Indiana University, where he was chair of the psychology department from 1946–1947, before returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained at Harvard for the rest of his career.

In 1936 Skinner married Yvonne Blue (1911 1997); the couple had two daughters, Julie (m. Vargas) and Deborah (m. Buzan). He died of leukemia and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.


He conducted pioneering work in psychology and innovated his own school of Radical Behaviorism, which seeks to understand behavior as a function of environmental histories of reinforcing consequences. He is known as the inventor of the operant conditioning chamber (or Skinner box), a research tool used to examine the orderly relations of the behavior of organisms (such as rats, pigeons and humans) to their environment. He is the author of Walden Two, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Verbal Behavior, Science and Human Behaviour and numerous other books and articles. He discovered what is now called operant conditioning and articulated the now widely accepted term reinforcement as a scientific principle of behavior. His position reflects the extension of the influence of physicist Ernst Mach's The Science of Mechanics to the subject of psychology.[13] Skinner's pioneering research reflected the dual influence of whole organism research in Ivan Pavlov and Jacques Loeb.[14]


File:Skinner teaching machine 01.jpg
The teaching machine, a mechanical invention to automate the task of programmed instruction.

Air crib

In an effort to help his wife cope with the day to day tasks of child rearing, Skinner – a consummate inventor – thought he might be able to improve upon the standard crib. He invented the 'air-crib' to meet this challenge. An 'air-crib' [15] [16](also known as a 'baby tender' or humorously as an 'heir conditioner') is an easily-cleaned, temperature and humidity-controlled box Skinner designed to assist in the raising of babies.

It was one of his more controversial inventions, and was popularly mischaracterized as cruel and experimental.[17] It was designed to make the early childcare more simple (by greatly reducing laundry, diaper rash, cradle cap, etc.), while encouraging the baby to be more confident, mobile, comfortable, healthy and therefore less prone to cry. Reportedly it had some success in these goals.[17] Air-cribs were later commercially manufactured by several companies. Air-cribs of some fashion are still used to this day, and publications continue to dispel myths about, and tout the progressive advantages of Skinner's original.[citation needed]

A 2004 book by Lauren Slater [18] caused much controversy by mentioning claims that Skinner had used his baby daughter in some of his experiments. Although the book itself said that the claims were groundless, this nuance was missed in some responses, including a vehement and public denial of the claims by his daughter Deborah Skinner Buzan herself.[19]

Cumulative recorder

The cumulative recorder is an instrument used to automatically record behavior graphically. Initially, its graphing mechanism has consisted of a rotating drum of paper equipped with a marking needle. The needle would start at the bottom of the page and the drum would turn the roll of paper horizontally. Each response would result in the marking needle moving vertically along the paper one tick. This makes it possible for the rate of response to be calculated by finding the slope of the graph at a given point. For example, a regular rate of response would cause the needle to move vertically at a regular rate, resulting in a straight diagonal line rising towards the right. An accelerating or decelerating rate of response would lead to a quadratic (or similar) curve. The cumulative recorder provided a powerful analytical tool for studying schedules of reinforcement.

Operant conditioning chamber

While at Harvard, B. F. Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber to measure organic responses and their orderly interactions with the environment. This device was an example of his lifelong ability to invent useful devices, which included whimsical devices in his childhood [20] to the cumulative recorder to measure the rate of response of organisms in an operant chamber. Even in old age, Skinner invented a Thinking Aid to assist in writing.[21]

Teaching machine

The teaching machine was a mechanical device whose purpose was to administer a curriculum of programmed instruction. It housed a list of questions, and a mechanism through which the learner could respond to each question. Upon delivering a correct answer, the learner would be rewarded.[22]

Pigeon Guided Missile

The US Navy required a weapon effective against the German Bismarck class battleships but although missile and TV technology existed, the size of the primitive guidance systems available rendered any weapon ineffective. Project Pigeon[23] [24]was potentially an extremely simple and effective solution but despite an effective demonstration, it was abandoned as soon as more conventional solutions were available. Skinner complained "our problem was no one would take us seriously."[25] The point is perhaps best explained in terms of human psychology (i.e. few people would trust a pigeon to guide a missile no matter how reliable it proved).[26]

Radical behaviorism

Finding the behaviorism of his time to be problematic, Skinner branched off his own version he called Radical Behaviorism which unlike methodological behaviorism did not require truth by consensus so it could accept private events such as thinking, perception and emotion in its account. Also, unlike all of the other behaviorists such as Tolman, Hull and Clark, Skinner's version radically rejected mediating constructs and the hypothetico-deductive method, [27][13] instead offering a strongly inductive, data driven approach that has proven to be successful in dozens of areas from behavioral pharmacology to language therapy in the developmentally delayed.

Verbal behavior

Challenged by Alfred North Whitehead during a casual discussion while at Harvard to provide an account of a randomly provided piece of verbal behavior[28] Skinner set about attempting to extend his then-new functional, inductive, approach to the complexity of human verbal behavior. Developed over two decades, his work appeared as the culmination of the William James lectures in the book, Verbal Behavior. Although Noam Chomsky was highly critical of Verbal Behavior, he conceded that it was the "most careful and thoroughgoing presentation of such speculations" [29] as a reason for giving it "a review." After a slow reception, perhaps due to its lack of experimental evidence unlike Skinner's previous work [30] Skinner's functional analysis of verbal behavior has seen a resurgence of interest in applied settings.

See Verbal Behavior for a more detailed discussion of this work.

Influence on education

Skinner influenced education as well as psychology. He was quoted as saying, "Teachers must learn how to teach... they need only to be taught more effective ways of teaching." Skinner asserted that positive reinforcement is more effective at changing and establishing behaviour than punishment, with obvious implications for the then widespread practice of rote learning and punitive discipline in education. Skinner also suggests that the main thing people learn from being punished is how to avoid getting punished the next time.

Skinner says that there are 5 main obstacles in learning:

  1. People have a fear of failure
  2. There is a lack of directions
  3. There is also a lack of clarity in the direction
  4. Positive reinforcement is not used enough
  5. The task is not broken down into small enough steps

Skinner suggests that with all of the obstacles out of the way any age appropriate skill can be taught using his 5 principles:

  1. Have small steps
  2. Work from most simple to most complex tasks
  3. Repeat the directions as many times as possible
  4. Give immediate feedback
  5. Give positive reinforcement

Skinner's views on education are extensively written about in his book the Technology of teaching. It is also reflected in Fred S. Keller's Programmed System of instruction and Ogden R. Lindsley's Precision Teaching.

Walden Two and Beyond Freedom & Dignity

Skinner is popularly known mainly for his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Walden Two describes a visit to an imaginary utopian commune in the 1940s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world due to their practice of scientific social planning and the use of operant conditioning in the raising of children.

Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden, champions a lifestyle that does not support war, foster competition or social strife. It encourages a lifestyle of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness, satisfying work and leisure.[31]

In Beyond Freedom and Dignity Skinner suggests that a technology of behavior could help make a better society. However, we would have to accept that an autonomous agent was not the driving force for our actions. Skinner offered alternatives to punishment and challenged his readers to use modern technology for more than just war. Instead science might be used to build a better society.

Schedules of reinforcement

Part of Skinner's analysis of behavior involved not only the power of a single instance of reinforcement, but the effects of particular schedules of reinforcement over time.

Skinner's types of schedules of reinforcement involved: interval (fixed or variable) and ratio (fixed or variable).

  • Continuous reinforcement — constant delivery of reinforcement for an action; every time a specific action was performed the subject instantly and always received a reinforcement. This method is prone to extinction and is very hard to enforce.
  • Interval (fixed/variable) reinforcement (Fixed) — reinforcement is set for certain times. (Variable) — times between reinforcement are not set, and often differ.
  • Ratio (fixed or variable) reinforcement (Fixed) — deals with a set amount of work needed to be completed before there is reinforcement. (Variable) — amount of work needed for the reinforcement differs from the last.

Political views

Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control – a technology of human behavior – could help problems unsolved by earlier approaches or aggravated by advances in technology such as the atomic bomb. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.[32] He did not see the problems of political control as a battle of domination versus freedom, but as choices between what kinds of control were used for which purposes.[2] Skinner opposed the use of coercion, punishment or fear, and supported the use of positive reinforcement.[1] Skinner's book, Walden Two, presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society, which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical piece. In his book, Skinner answers the problem that exists in many utopian novels – "What is the Good Life?" In Walden Two, the answer is a life of friendship, health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile contributions to one's society. This was to be achieved through behavioral technology, which could offer alternatives to coercion,[1] as good science applied correctly would help society,[2] and allow all people to cooperate with each other peacefully.[1] Skinner described his novel as "my New Atlantis", in reference to Bacon's utopia.[33] He opposed corporal punishment in the school, and wrote a letter to the California Senate that helped lead it to a ban on spanking.[34]

When Milton's Satan falls from heaven, he ends in hell. And what does he say to reassure himself? 'Here, at least, we shall be free.' And that, I think, is the fate of the old-fashioned liberal. He's going to be free, but he's going to find himself in hell.

— B. F. Skinner, from William F. Buckley Jr, On the Firing Line, p. 87.

Superstition in the pigeon

One of Skinner's experiments examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.

One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.

Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:

The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing -- or, more strictly speaking, did something else.

Modern behavioral psychologists have disputed Skinner's "superstition" explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Subsequent research (for instance, by Staddon and Simmelhag in 1971) while finding similar behavior failed to find support for Skinner's "adventitious reinforcement" explanation for it. By looking at the timing of different behaviors within the interval, Staddon and Simmelhag were able to distinguish two classes of behavior: the terminal response, which occurred in anticipation of food, and interim responses, that occurred earlier in the interfood interval and were rarely contiguous with food. Terminal responses seem to reflect classical (rather than operant) conditioning, rather than adventitious reinforcement, guided by a process like that observed in 1968 by Brown and Jenkins in their "autoshaping" procedures. The causation of interim activities (such as the schedule-induced polydipsia seen in a similar situation with rats) also cannot be traced to adventitious reinforcement and its details are still obscure (Staddon, 1977).

see also Timberlake & Lucas 1985 [35]


Critics & Criticisms

J.E.R. Staddon

As understood by Skinner, ascribing dignity to individuals involves giving them credit for their actions. To say "Skinner is brilliant" means that Skinner is an originating force. If Skinner's determinist theory is right, he is merely the focus of his environment. He is not an originating force and he had no choice in saying the things he said or doing the things he did. Skinner's environment and genetics both allowed and compelled him to write his book. Similarly, the environment and genetic potentials of the advocates of freedom and dignity cause them to resist the reality that their own activities are deterministically grounded. J. E. R. Staddon (The New Behaviorism, 2001) has argued the compatibilist position, that Skinner's determinism is not in any way contradictory to traditional notions of reward and punishment, as he believed[citation needed].

Noam Chomsky

Perhaps Skinner's best known critic, Noam Chomsky published his review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior soon after it was published.[29] The review became better known than the book itself.[3] It has been credited with launching the cognitive movement in psychology and other disciplines.

Chomsky also reviewed Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, utilizing the same basic motifs as his Verbal Behavior review. Among Chomsky's critiques were that Skinner's laboratory work could not be extended to humans, that when it was extended to humans it represented 'scientistic' behavior attempting to emulate science but which was not scientific, that Skinner was not a scientist because he rejected the hypothetico-deductive model of theory testing, that Skinner had no science of behavior, and that Skinner's works were highly conducive to justifying or advancing totalitarianism.[38]


Skinner has often been associated with political and social positions he never espoused and even explicitly objected to [39].

Written Works

  • The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis, 1938. ISBN 1-58390-007-1, ISBN 0-87411-487-X.
  • Walden Two, 1948. ISBN 0-02-411510-X.
  • Science and Human Behavior, 1953. ISBN 0-02-929040-6.
  • Schedules of Reinforcement, with C. B. Ferster, 1957. ISBN 0-13-792309-0.
  • Verbal Behavior, 1957. ISBN 1-58390-021-7.
  • The Analysis of Behavior: A Program for Self Instruction, with James G. Holland, 1961. This self-instruction book is no longer in print, but the B.F. Skinner Foundation web site has an interactive version. ISBN 0-07-029565-4.
  • The Technology of Teaching, 1968. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts Library of Congress Card Number 68-12340 E 81290
  • Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis, 1969. ISBN 0-390-81280-3.
  • Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1971. ISBN 0-394-42555-3.
  • About Behaviorism, 1974. ISBN 0-394-49201-3, ISBN 0-394-71618-3.
  • Particulars of My Life: Part One of an Autobiography, 1976. ISBN 0-394-40071-2.
  • Reflections on Behaviorism and Society, 1978. ISBN 0-13-770057-1.
  • The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part Two of an Autobiography, 1979. ISBN 0-394-50581-6.
  • Notebooks, edited by Robert Epstein, 1980. ISBN 0-13-624106-9.
  • Skinner for the Classroom, edited by R. Epstein, 1982. ISBN 0-87822-261-8.
  • Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management, with M. E. Vaughan, 1983.
  • A Matter of Consequences: Part Three of an Autobiography, 1983. ISBN 0-394-53226-0, ISBN 0-8147-7845-3.
  • Upon Further Reflection, 1987. ISBN 0-13-938986-5.
  • Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, 1989. ISBN 0-675-20674-X.
  • Cumulative Record: A Selection of Papers, 1959, 1961, 1972 and 1999 as Cumulative Record: Definitive Edition. This book includes a reprint of Skinner's October 1945 Ladies' Home Journal article, "Baby in a Box," Skinner's original, personal account of the much-misrepresented "Baby in a box" device. ISBN 0-87411-969-3 (paperback)

See also

Authors On Skinner

  • Bjork, D. W. (1993) B.F. Skinner: a life
  • Dews, P. B. (Ed.)(1970) Festschrift For B. F. Skinner.New York : Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  • Evans, R. I. (1968) B. F. Skinner: the man and his ideas
  • Nye, Robert D. (1979) What Is B. F. Skinner Really Saying?. Englewood Cliffs, N.J. : Prentice-Hall.
  • Sagal, P. T. (1981) Skinner's Philosophy. Washington, D.C. : University Press of America.
  • Skinner, B.F. (1976) Particulars of my life: Part 1 of an Autobiography
  • Skinner, B.F. (1979) The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part 2 of an Autobiography
  • Skinner, B.F. (1983) A Matter of Consequences: Part 3 of an Autobiography
  • Smith, D.L. (2002). On Prediction and Control. B.F. Skinner and the Technological Ideal of Science. In W.E. Pickren & D.A. Dewsbury, (Eds.), Evolving Perspectives on the History of Psychology, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.
  • Wiener, D. N. (1996) B.F. Skinner: benign anarchist



  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 B. F. Skinner, (1948) Walden Two. The science of human behavior is used to eliminate poverty, sexual oppression, government as we know it, create a lifestyle without that such as war.
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Skinner, B. F. (1972). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York: Vintage Books. ISBN 0-553-14372-7.
  3. 3.0 3.1 B. F. Skinner, (1970) "On 'Having' A Poem" talks about the poem, its publication, and contains the poem and a reply to it as well. Real Audio mp3 Ogg
  4. http://www.muskingum.edu/~psych/psycweb/history/skinner.htm
  5. B. F. Skinner, About Behaviorism
  6. see Verbal Behavior for research citations.
  7. B. F. Skinner, (1938) The Behavior of Organisms.
  8. C. B. Ferster & B. F. Skinner, (1957) Schedules of Reinforcement.
  9. Review of General Psychology, July, 2002.
  10. http://ww2.lafayette.edu/~allanr/biblio.html, accessed on 5-20-07.
  11. For another bibliography, see [1]
  12. Paraphrased from "Biography of B.F. Skinner". AllPsych.com.
  13. 13.0 13.1 Mecca Chiesa, (1994) Radical Behaviorism: the philosophy and the science. [2]
  14. Pauly, P. J. {187} ``Controlling Life: Jacques Loeb and the Engineering Ideal in Biology, OUP, New York``[3] Loeb might have influenced Skinner through J.B. Watson as he was Watson's adviser briefly, but more likely through Crozier who was the head of Physiology at Harvard when Skinner was there.
  15. A photograph of one is in an archive here [4]
  16. Picture taken from the LHJ article [5]
  17. 17.0 17.1 Snopes.com "One Man and a Baby Box", accessed on 12-29-07.
  18. Slater, L. (2004) Opening Skinner's Box; Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century, London, Bloomsbury
  19. "I was not a lab rat" (Guardian)
  20. B. F. Skinner, (1984) Particulars of My Life. Devices included a potato shooting machine and a perpetual motion machine, as well as a device to separate ripe from unripe berries.
  21. B. F. Skinner, (1987) "A Thinking Aid," Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 20, 379–380. [6]
  22. "Programmed Instruction and Task Analysis". College of Education, University of Houston.
  23. Skinner, B. F. (1960). Pigeons in a pelican. American Psychologist, 15, 28-37. Reprinted in: Skinner, B. F. (1972). Cumulative record (3rd ed.). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts,pp. 574-591.
  24. Described throughout Skinner, B. F. (1979). The shaping of a behaviorist: Part two of an autobiography. New York: Knopf.
  25. "Skinner's Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?". TIME Magazine. September 20, 1971. Check date values in: |date= (help)
  26. Richard Dawkins. "Design for a Faith-Based Missile". Free Inquiry magazine. Volume 22 (Number 1).
  27. B. F. Skinner, (1950) "Are Theories of Learning Necessary?"
  28. B. F. Skinner, (1957) Verbal Behavior. The account in the appendix is that he asked Skinner to explain why he said "No black scorpion is falling on this table."
  29. 29.0 29.1 A. N. Chomsky, (1957) "A Review of BF Skinner's Verbal Behavior." in the preface, 2nd paragraph
  30. J. Michael, (1984) "Verbal Behavior," Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 42, 363–376.
  31. Ramsey, Richard David, Morning Star: The Values-Communication of Skinner's Walden Two, Ph.D. dissertation, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, December 1979, available from University Microfilms, Ann Arbor, MI. Attempts to analyze Walden Two, Beyond Freedom and Dignity, and other Skinner works in the context of Skinner's life; lists over 500 sources.
  32. see Beyond Freedom and Dignity, 1974 for example
  33. A matter of Consequences, p. 412.
  34. Asimov, Nanette (1996-01-30). "Spanking Debate Hits Assembly". SFGate. San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 2008-03-02.
  35. Timberlake & Lucas, (1985) "JEAB" [7]
  36. "Recipients of the APF Gold Medal Awards". Retrieved 2007-12-28.
  37. "Humanist of the Year". Retrieved 2007-12-28.
  38. A. N. Chomsky, (1972) "The Case Against B. F. Skinner."
  39. To some extent this position is supported in About Behaviorism (1971) which mentions many common misconceptions about Radical Behaviorism.


Further reading

  • Kaufhold, J. A. (2002) The Psychology of Learning and the Art of Teaching
  • Basil-Curzon, L. (2004) Teaching in Further Education : A outline of Principles and Practice
  • Hardin, C.J. (2004) Effective Classroom Management
  • http://www.bfskinner.org/bio.asp

External links

Articles by B.F. Skinner


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