B. F. Skinner: It’s All About the Consequences

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was born on March 20th, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. The son of a lawyer and housewife, Skinner had a warm and stable childhood, and was left with plenty of time for creativity and invention—two traits that would serve him well throughout his career. Having graduated from Hamilton College in 1926, Skinner originally set his sights on becoming a writer. It was while working as a bookstore clerk in New York City that Skinner discovered the works of John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov, which so fascinated him that he put his plans of becoming a novelist to the side and decided to pursue a career in psychology.

When Skinner was twenty-four years old, he enrolled in the psychology department of Harvard University and began his studies under William Crozier, the chair of the new physiology department. Though not himself a psychologist, Crozier was interested in studying the behavior of animals “as a whole,” an approach that was different than the approaches that psychologists and physiologists took at the time. Instead of trying to figure out all of the processes that were occurring inside the animal, Crozier—and subsequently Skinner—was more interested in the animal’s overall behavior. Crozier’s ideology matched perfectly with the work that Skinner wished to pursue; he was interested in learning how behavior was related to experimental conditions. Skinner’s most significant and influential work, the notion of operant conditioning and the invention of the operant conditioning chamber, came out of his days at Harvard. The work Skinner conducted while at Harvard University is still some of the most important research with regards to behaviorism—work which he taught firsthand to generations of students at his alma mater until he passed away at the age of eighty-six, in 1990.

B. F. Skinner’s work left a profound impact on the world of psychology, and his work did not go unnoticed. Some of his more outstanding citations include:

  • President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Skinner the National Medal of Science (1968)
  • Skinner was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation (1971)
  • Skinner was given the Human of the Year Award (1972)
  • Skinner received a Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology (1990)