Burrhus Frederic Skinner—more commonly known as B.F. Skinner—was a 20th century psychologist who developed the theory of radical behaviorism. 

Professional Life

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 in Pennsylvania. He initially set his academic sights on writing and moved to New York to attend Hamilton College, where he earned his bachelor’s degree in English literature. Hamilton College was not a great fit for Skinner: the school required daily chapel attendance and Skinner was an atheist. He frequently published articles critical of the school and its administration. Skinner’s criticism of popular ideology would become a lifelong occupation.

Skinner developed an interest in psychology, and he enrolled in a graduate program at Harvard University, where he earned his PhD in psychology in 1931. Skinner was a research fellow with the National Research Council for one year and conducted research at Harvard until 1936, at which point he accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota. From 1945–1948, Skinner taught psychology at Indiana University, and from 1948 until his retirement in 1974, he was a professor at Harvard.

Skinner was a prolific author as well as an academic. His most famous works include Beyond Freedom and Dignity and Walden II, a fictional account of a culture dominated by behaviorist ideas. The book Verbal Behavior was not widely accepted at the time of its publication, but it has achieved significant readership over the years. Skinner received the Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, from the American Psychology Association; the Outstanding member and Distinguished Professional Achievement Award in 1991, from the Society for Performance Improvement; and most notably, the 1997 Scholar Hall of Fame Award, from the Academy of Resource and Development.

Contribution to Psychology

Over the course of his long career, Skinner developed many theories and inventions, and he remains one of the best known and most controversial figures in psychology. His behaviorist theories remain hotly contested and have influenced fields ranging from education to dog training. Skinner influenced behaviorism through his research on reinforcement; he focused heavily on the exploration of negative and positive reinforcement and the effects they had on behavior. He believed that his behaviorist theories could save humanity from itself and argued in favor of positive reinforcement to shape political and social behavior. His theory of radical behaviorism argues that internal perceptions are not based on a psychological level of consciousness, but rather on an individual's own physical body.

Among Skinner’s many inventions was a highly controversial one, known as the “Air-Crib” that he developed while teaching at Indiana University. Designed to support child rearing, the crib was a temperature-controlled, sterile, soundproof box that was meant to encourage a child’s independence, while minimizing discomfort. The most famous of Skinner’s inventions is commonly known as the “Skinner box,” a device designed to employ “operant conditioning”—the manipulation of behaviors through reinforcement. For example, an animal would receive a reward for small acts representing a desired behavior and the rewards would increase as the animal came closer to completing the desired behavior.

Skinner conducted extensive research into reinforcement as a method of teaching. Continuous reinforcement involves the constant delivery of reinforcement by reward for a desired behavior, but Skinner found the method impractical and ineffective. Interval-based reinforcements, on the other hand, are reinforcements delivered according to a specific schedule and tend to produce slow and steady change. Interval-based reinforcement might follow a fixed interval or variable interval schedule, providing reinforcement after a fixed or variable amount of time. Alternatively, interval-based reinforcement can follow a fixed-ratio schedule, in which reinforcement is given after a certain number of responses, or a variable-ratio schedule, in which reinforcement is provided based on an average number of responses. Skinner concluded that variable-ratio schedules tend to produce the most compliance, particularly when rewards occur frequently. For example, a person training a dog might reward the dog, on average, every five times it obeys, but vary the number of obedience tasks between each reward.

Books by B.F. Skinner

  • The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis (1938)
  • Walden Two (1948)
  • Science and Human Behavior (1953)
  • Schedules of Reinforcement (1957)
  • Verbal Behavior (1957)
  • The Analysis of Behavior: A Program for Self Instruction (with James Holland, 1961)
  • The Technology of Teaching (1968)
  • Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis (1969)
  • Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)
  • About Behaviorism (1974)
  • Particulars of My Life: Part One of an Autobiography (1976)
  • Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978)
  • The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part Two of an Autobiography (1979)
  • Notebooks (with Robert Epstein, 1980)
  • Enjoy Old Age: A Program of Self-Management (with M. Vaughan, 1983)
  • A Matter of Consequences: Part Three of an Autobiography (1983)
  • Upon Further Reflection (1987)
  • Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior (1989)


  1. Burrhus Frederic Skinner. (2006). World of Biology. Retrieved from http://www.gale.cengage.com/InContext/bio.htm
  2. Sobel, D. (1990, Aug 20). B. F. skinner, the champion of behaviorism, is dead at 86. New York Times. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/427762730?accountid=1229