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B.F. Skinner’s Turning Psychology Into a Science
Burrhus Frederic Skinner, more commonly known as B.F. Skinner was a behavioral theorist born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 and was the eldest of two while Skinner’s brother passed away at the age of sixteen (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Both of Skinner’s parents were hardworking and would embed rules of proper behavior into Skinner’s head. The three fears that Skinner’s parents preached was to fear god, fear the police, and what people would think (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Not only would Skinner’s parents emphasize proper behavior so was Skinner’s grandmother. Skinner from a very young age was influenced to have proper behavior, this not only made Skinner behave the way Skinner’s parents wanted Skinner to but this could have been the seed that planted Skinner’s great theory of behaviorism. From exploring psychology to wanting to turn psychology into a science, Skinner set a great foundation for what is now one of the most commonly used therapies of today.
Skinner’s immediate family had a major influence with the way Skinner would behave. Skinner’s grandmother would point out the coals in the stove and would describe that the coals were punishments of hell (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Skinner’s father taught morals of what happens to criminals and demonstrated this by taking Skinner to a well known New York state prison and listen to lectures that were held. Later on when Skinner was older, Skinner wrote about going to a cathedral as an adult and made sure not to step on the gravestones. Skinner noted that the reason was because as a child Skinner was told that was improper behavior. Those experiences taught Skinner that the adult behaviors Skinner had, came from the rewards and punishments when being a child (Schultz & Schultz, 2017).
Skinner’s interest in animal behavior came from owned pets which were turtles, toads, snakes, chipmunks, and lizards (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Skinner also had an attraction with pigeons as well, that derived from a county fair. At the fair Skinner saw pigeons race, and perform obstacles such as one pigeon climbed up a ladder to a window and rescued a stranded pigeon. This experience had Skinner train pigeons to play ping pong and eventually teach Skinner’s daughter’s cat to play the piano.
Skinner majored in english at Hamilton College in New York, and pursed to be a novelist. After graduating, Skinner at the age of twenty two felt as a failure because there was no inspiration to write after months of time passed, otherwise known as a writer’s block, and referred to this as a dark time in his life. This rough patch, however, helped in the introduction of Skinner’s persuasion to study human behavior as a science and not methods of fiction (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). Skinner was influenced greatly by Pavlov and Watson, Skinner later enrolled in Harvard University and became committed to the study of behaviorism (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). While enrolled at Harvard Skinner majored in psychology and received a Ph.D. in three years. Skinner then went on to teach at the University of Minnesota and later in Indiana University (Schultz & Schultz, 2017). After teaching, Skinner wrote a novel tittled Walden Two, which sold a total of two million copies. In the book Skinner talked about the control that positive reinforcements has on society, this then was the foundation to Skinners later work on behaviorism.
Skinner became an inspiration during the twentieth century due to operant conditioning being popularized (Vanderbilt, 2013). Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning emphasized the effect of environment on animals’ voluntary behavior, Skinner later found a way to apply it to humans. Skinner ran tests which had pigeons obtain food when the correct button was pecked. This began to get people’s attention around the time of World War II, as people saw that Skinner was able to train animals through behavioral techniques. The public saw what Skinner was doing and wanted to replicate it. Two of Skinner’s graduate students went on in a business where chickens and other animals were trained for performances (Vanderbilt, 2013). The two graduate students’ business eventually expanded to zoo’s and television shows. At the time of World War II, Skinner was permitted defense funding where Skinner was given the task to conduct a research on pigeons guiding missiles (Vanderbilt, 2013). In the research pigeons would peck buttons that activated steering engines to guide the missles to a target. However, the pigeons guiding missiles research was never able to be deployed.
PSYCHOLOGY BECOMING A SCIENCE
Skinner’s main goal in the theory was to turn psychology into a science. Skinner suggested that psychology may not have reached full science because it was wrong but because it was not properly applied (Skinner, 1953). Skinner suggested that human behavior be observed carefully in an objective view. Science, according to Skinner, was an order process that showed how an event fell in relation to other events; where most of these events are observed (Skinner, 1953). Behaviors cause, cannot simply be observed, is much more complex than it seems because behaviors cause is a process. However there tends to be correlations that Skinner observed about human behavior and inner causes, such as eating because of hunger (Skinner, 1953).
Skinner found a link between (1) operation performed upon the organisms from without, which could be from past history or events of the organism (2) an inner condition that is current and (3) a kind of behavior (Skinner, 1953). In order to alter the behavior, Skinner’s theory suggests that the second link is set up by the first from circumstances that can be manipulated. That is, in order to make an organism hungry a person must not feed the organism. Not feeding an organism causes hunger, hunger becomes the inner condition and this technique then allows for behavioral control (Skinner, 1953).
Skinner heavily attributed behavior to past experiences, this was one of the reasons why Skinner emphasised the importance and quality of impact that operant reinforcement has on an individual. Skinner attempted to do this by implicating that behaviors are defined by past and present environments and that if behaviors are done repeatedly the behaviors can become traits of a person’s personality (Phelps, 2015). Skinner argued that different personalities caused different behaviors. Skinner attributed features of behavior of the organism to be a corresponding feature of the inner personality. Skinner emphasized how what is observed or acted on the outside is only drove by the inner person and that the inner person, or personality, are manipulated by early experiences (Skinner, 1953). These experiences can even affect behavior in a long lasting way that can affect the overall personality. Skinner stated that characteristics are dimensions of personality (Skinner, 1953).
Skinner added that social forces can also affect the organism in manipulating behaviors like anxiety and skepticism (Skinner, 1953). Behaviors are not only affected by the surrounding world but the consequences of these behaviors may affect the organism, changing the likelihood of the behavior recurring. Skinner stated that the likelihood of behaviors occurring again are direct effects from reward and punishment, which Skinner based off of Thorndike’s Law of Effect (Skinner, 1953). Thorndike’s law of effect stated that learning occurs best when it is reinforced or punished directly after a response. This then stamps in a behavior if the behavior is being reinforced or stamps it out if the behavior is being punished.
Skinner emphasized two ways that a behavior can be learned. One being learning through operant conditioning, which is when responses are defined by consequences and classical conditioning which is learning through association. Operant conditioning requires shapping, which is another term Skinner used in the theory (Skinner, 1953). The process of shaping is as it sounds, increment rewards are given to shape a behavior slowly until the desired behavior is obtained. Classical conditioning, uses pairing of a neutral stimulus with unconditioned stimulus for a variety of times until the desired response is obtained.
The process of stamping in a behavior, as Skinner mentioned, is done by reinforcement by adding something in order to increase the behavior (Skinner 1953). It is the behavior being focused on that needs to be either reinforced or punished directly to have the desired outcome. The consequences of people’s behaviors that people act upon in the environment serve as a form of reinforcement. For many people this is quite commonly used to learn what is right from wrong, but as a behaviorist Skinner wanted to see how behaviors can be manipulated.
Through classical conditioning Skinner used reward and punishment to go about with the theory. Reinforcement according to Skinner, increases the likelihood of a behavior, and can be done either positively or negatively (Skinner, 1953). That is, in positive reinforcement something must be added otherwise like an unconditioned stimulus that brings about joy to a person in order to increase the likelihood of the person doing the behavior as a response. For negative reinforcement, something is being taken away to also increase a behavior, this can be things such as the unconditioned stimulus or something else heavily desired. Both positive and negative reinforcement are attributed with increasing the behavior, but the form of implementing the reinforcement is what differs from negative or positive.
Punishment on the other hand is the opposite. Skinner defined punishment as decreasing behaviors though application of a stimulus (Skinner, 1953). These stimuli can either be positive or negative creating either appetitive or aversive feelings. Positive punishment is the adding of a stimulus in order to decrease a behavior. To be more clear, this can be something along the lines of adding more homework to disruptive students. The homework is being added and the behavior is being decreased. Negative punishment is the process of taking something away in order to decrease a behavior. An example of this is, taking a whistle away from a child that won’t stop whistling at inappropriate times. The whistle is taken away and the behavior stops.
Skinner also studied the process of extinction, which goes primarily in hand with negative punishment. In this process of extinction, the conditioned stimulus, that is the learned response goes through a process in order to lose its power by no longer being reinforced (Skinner, 1953). This is done by typically taking away (negative) the stimulus to decrease a behavior (punishment). This process is sometimes used on children for bad behavior with inappropriate objects but even on adults and relationships (Higbee & Sellers, 2011).
However, as much as Skinner tried to state that personality is responsible for behaviors. Skinner was not very successful in explaining how behavior can be defined by personality. Skinner demonstrated the effect of behavior and how it can be manipulated but there was no such proof that personality itself could become manipulated in similar manners (Goddard, 2018). There were some descriptions that Skinner tried to connect with, like how psychopathic personalities cause people to act like delinquents, but Skinner was not very clear in the findings nor reasoning (Skinner, 1953).
Skinner’s behaviorism theory not only made a great discovery about how people’s behaviors can be manipulated, but today behaviorism is used in therapy. Behaviorism helped set up a foundation of importance with positive psychology, psychological research, and critical psychiatry that is greatly used today through a vast majority (Goddard, 2018). Children with autism spectrum disorders and intellectual disabilities are treated with behaviorism (Siegel & King, 2014). Behaviorism has served as a great use in treatments for children with autism because it teaches the autistic people to perform every day jobs though positive reinforcement. It has shown a great deal of improvement in many children and has amazing success in families who struggle with autistic children because behaviorism is something that can easily be repeated by others.
Skinner’s main goal was to turn psychology into a science through behaviorism. Skinner ran a lot of experiments with many animals to transform psychology into a science. Pigeons were the most favored by Skinner as the pigeons had the most success. Skinner influenced people with operant conditioning, classical conditioning, punishment, and reinforcement. Skinner emphasized greatly the power of shaping behavior through conditioning and how the form of applying behaviorism can change behavior. It was successful with animals and is still being shown today to be successful with human behavior. Skinner was not only able to open the doors of science and psychology, but was also able to make an impact in today’s society by helping people with behavioral disorders.
- Goddard, M. J. (2018). Extending B. F. Skinner’s selection by consequences to personality change, implicit theories of intelligence, skill learning, and language. Review of General Psychology, 22(4), 421–426.
- Higbee, T. S., & Sellers, T. P. (2011). Verbal behavior and communication training. In J. L. Matson & P. Sturmey (Eds.), International handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders. 367–379. New York, NY: Springer Science + Business Media.
- Schultz, D. P., & Schultz, S. E. (2017). Theories of personality. Australia: Cengage Learning.
- Siegel, M., & King, B. H. (2014). Autism and developmental disorders: Management of serious behavioral disturbance. Child and Adolescent Psychiatric Clinics of North America, 23(1)
- Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.
- Phelps, B. J. (2015). Behavioral perspectives on personality and self. The Psychological Record, 65(3), 557–565.
- Vanderbilt, T. (2013). Animal intelligence. Smithsonian, 44(6), 70.
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