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1.United States psychologist and a leading proponent of behaviorism (1904-1990)
sciences humaines. (fr)[ClasseParExt.]
scientifique (par pays). (fr)[ClasseParExt.]
métier : psychologie (fr)[Classe]
profession libérale (fr)[ClasseParExt.]
métier : service social (fr)[Classe]
caractère de l'individu (fr)[termes liés]
scientifique ou technicien américain. (fr)[ClasseParExt.]
B. F. Skinner (n.)
|B. F. Skinner|
|Born||Burrhus Frederic Skinner
March 20, 1904
Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, United States
|Died||August 18, 1990
Massachusetts, United States
|Fields||Psychology, linguistics, philosophy|
|Institutions||University of Minnesota
|Alma mater||Hamilton College
|Known for||Behavior analysis
Operant conditioning chamber
|Notable awards||National Medal of Science (1968)|
Burrhus Frederic "B. F." Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) was an American behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.
Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, innovated his own philosophy of science called radical behaviorism, 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.
Skinner 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. In a June 2002 survey, Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. He was a prolific author who published 21 books and 180 articles.
Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania to Grace and William Skinner. His father was a lawyer. He became an atheist after a liberal Christian teacher tried to assuage his fear of the Hell that his grandmother described. 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. He also attended Harvard University after receiving 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 tried to become a writer in Greenwich Village. 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. His encounter with John B. Watson's Behaviorism led him into graduate study in psychology and to the development of his own operant behaviorism.
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. The couple had two daughters, Julie (m. Vargas) and Deborah (m. Buzan). He died of leukemia on August 18, 1990, and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Skinner called his particular brand of behaviorism "Radical" behaviorism. Radical behaviorism is the philosophy of the science of behavior. It seeks to understand behavior as a function of environmental histories of reinforcing consequences. Such a functional analysis makes it capable of producing technologies of behavior (see Applied Behavior Analysis). Unlike less austere behaviorisms, it does not accept private events such as thinking, perceptions, and unobservable emotions in a causal account of an organism's behavior:
The position can be stated as follows: what is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind, or mental life but the observer's own body. This does not mean, as I shall show later, that introspection is a kind of psychological research, nor does it mean (and this is the heart of the argument) that what are felt or introspectively observed are the causes of the behavior. An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection. At the moment we must content ourselves, as the methodological behaviorist insists, with a person's genetic and environment histories. What are introspectively observed are certain collateral products of those histories.
In this way we repair the major damage wrought by mentalism. When what a person does [is] attributed to what is going on inside him, investigation is brought to an end. Why explain the explanation? For twenty five hundred years people have been preoccupied with feelings and mental life, but only recently has any interest been shown in a more precise analysis of the role of the environment. Ignorance of that role led in the first place to mental fictions, and it has been perpetuated by the explanatory practices to which they gave rise.
Skinner believed that behavior is maintained from one condition to another through similar or same consequences across these situations. In short, behaviors are causal factors that are influenced by the consequences. His contribution to the understanding of behavior influenced many other scientists to explain social behavior and contingencies.
Reinforcement is a central concept in Behaviorism, and was seen as a central mechanism in the shaping and control of behavior. A common misconception is that negative reinforcement is synonymous with punishment. This misconception is rather pervasive, and is commonly found in even scholarly accounts of Skinner and his contributions. To be clear, while positive reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the application of some event (e.g., praise after some behavior is performed), negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the removal or avoidance of some aversive event (e.g., opening and raising an umbrella over your head on a rainy day is reinforced by the cessation of rain falling on you).
Both types of reinforcement strengthen behavior, or increase the probability of a behavior reoccurring; the difference is in whether the reinforcing event is something applied (positive reinforcement) or something removed or avoided (negative reinforcement). Punishment and extinction have the effect of weakening behavior, or decreasing the future probability of a behavior's occurrence, by the application of an aversive stimulus/event (positive punishment or punishment by contingent stimulation), removal of a desirable stimulus (negative punishment or punishment by contingent withdrawal), or the absence of a rewarding stimulus, which causes the behavior to stop (extinction).
Skinner also sought to understand the application of his theory in the broadest behavioral context as it applies to living organisms, namely natural selection.
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.
The most notable schedules of reinforcement presented by Skinner were interval (fixed or variable) and ratio (fixed or variable).
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' (also known as a 'baby tender' or humorously as an 'heir conditioner') is an easily cleaned, temperature and humidity-controlled crib Skinner designed to assist in the raising of babies.
Skinner designed this Air-Crib for his first child because he thought it would help parents who were awakened by their crying babies at night due to cold temperatures, and a need for essential clothing, or sheets. He thought doing so would alleviate “troublesome” environmental issues.
It was one of his most controversial inventions, and was popularly mischaracterized as cruel and experimental. The crib was often compared to his Operant Conditioning Chamber, crudely known as the "Skinner Box." This association with a system of experimentation and pellet rewards quashed any success. It was designed to make early childcare simpler (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. (Babies sleep and will sometimes play in air cribs but it's misleading to say they are 'raised' in them. Apart from newborns, most of a baby's waking hours will be spent out of the crib.) Reportedly it had some success in these goals. Air-cribs were later commercially manufactured by several companies.
A 2004 book by Lauren Slater caused much controversy by mentioning the common rumors that Skinner had used his baby daughter Deborah in some of his experiments and that she had subsequently committed suicide. Although Slater's book immediately afterwards stated that the rumours were false, Slater also allowed the reader to believe that Deborah had disappeared, thus doing little to quash the rumors (apart from her own denial of their truth). A reviewer in The Observer in March 2004 then misquoted Slater's books as supporting the rumours. This review was read by Deborah Skinner (now Deborah Buzan, an artist and writer living in London) who then in turn wrote a vehement riposte in The Guardian.
While at Harvard, B. F. Skinner invented the operant conditioning chamber, popularly referred to as the Skinner box, to measure responses of organisms (most often, rats and pigeons) and their orderly interactions with the environment. Skinner discovered that consequences for the organism played a large role in how the organism responded in certain situations. For instance, when the rat would pull the lever it would receive food. Subsequently, the rat made frequent pulls on the lever.
This device was an example of his lifelong ability to invent useful devices, which included whimsical devices in his childhood 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.
The cumulative recorder is an instrument used to automatically record behavior graphically. Its graphing mechanism 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. This cumulative recorder was used for the Skinner box to record the rat's behavior. This apparatus produced consistent and accurate records of behavior.
The teaching machine was a mechanical device whose purpose was to administer a curriculum of programmed instruction. In one incarnation, 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.
Skinner advocated the use of teaching machines for a broad range of students (e.g., preschool aged to adult) and instructional purposes (e.g., reading and music). Another of the multiple machines he envisioned could teach rhythm:
The teaching machine had such instructional potential because it provided immediate and regular reinforcement that maintained students’ interest, as the “material in the machine [was] always novel” (Skinner, 1961, p. 387). In this way, a student’s attention could be maintained without the use of aversive controls. The efficiency of the teaching machine resulted from its automatic provision of reinforcement, individualized pace setting, and a coherent instructional sequence for the student. It engaged students and allowed them to learn by doing.
Teaching machines, though perhaps rudimentary, were not rigid instruments of instruction. They could be adjusted and improved based upon reports of students’ performance. For example, if a student’s report showed numerous incorrect responses, then the machine could be reprogrammed to provide less advanced prompts or questions- the idea being that students acquire behaviors most efficiently when their error rate is minimized. Along these lines, multiple choice formats were not best suited for teaching machines because contingencies of reinforcement would be left to chance; moreover, this format could increase student mistakes and induce erroneous behaviors.
Not only useful in teaching explicit skills, machines could also promote the development of a repertoire of behaviors Skinner called self-management. Self-management refers to how students think- how they attend to the environment with the view of responding appropriately to stimuli. Machines give students the opportunity to first pay attention before receiving a reward as reinforcement. This is in stark contrast with what Skinner noticed as the classroom practice of initially capturing students’ attention (e.g., with a lively video) and delivering a reward (e.g., entertainment) before they have actually done attended- a practice which actually counters the development of self-management and fails to correctly apply reinforcements for correct behavior. What Skinner referred to as a teaching machine would probably be akin to a computer software program today that provided highly structured and incremental instruction. Though it was just one of a number of inventions, it embodies much of Skinner’s theory of learning and has wide-reaching implications for education in general and classroom instruction in particular.
The US Navy required a weapon effective against the German Bismarck class battleships. Although missile and TV technology existed, the size of the primitive guidance systems available rendered any weapon ineffective. Project Pigeon was potentially an extremely simple and effective solution, but despite an effective demonstration it was abandoned when more conventional solutions became available. The project centered on dividing the nose cone of a missile into three compartments, and encasing a pigeon in each. Each compartment used a lens to project an image of what was in front of the missile onto a screen. The pigeons would peck toward the object, thereby directing the missile.
Skinner complained "our problem was no one would take us seriously." 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).
Challenged by Alfred North Whitehead during a casual discussion while at Harvard to provide an account of a randomly provided piece of verbal behavior, 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 "S-R psychology" (which Skinner's system was most certainly not: the contingency (S) comes after the response (R) in operant conditioning) was a reason for giving it "a review." Verbal Behavior had an uncharacteristically slow reception, partly as a result of Chomsky's review, paired with Skinner's neglect to address or rebut any of Chomsky's condemnations. Skinner's peers may have been slow to adopt and consider the conventions within Verbal Behavior due to its lack of experimental evidence—unlike the empirical density that marked Skinner's previous work. However, Skinner's functional analysis of verbal behavior has seen a resurgence of interest in applied settings.
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Skinner influenced education as well as psychology. In Skinner’s view, education has two major purposes: (1) to teach repertoires of both verbal and nonverbal behavior; and (2) to encourage students to display an interest in instruction. He endeavored to bring students’ behavior under the control of the environment by reinforcing it only when particular stimuli were present. Because he believed that human behavior could be affected by small consequences, something as simple as “the opportunity to move forward after completing one stage of an activity” could prove reinforcing (Skinner, 1961, p. 380). Skinner favored active learning in the sense that students were not merely passive recipients of information doled out by teachers. He was convinced that a student had to take action; “to acquire behavior, the student must engage in behavior” (Skinner, 1961, p. 389).
Moreover, Skinner 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 behavior than punishment, with obvious implications for the then widespread practice of rote learning and punitive discipline in education. This is where Skinner's teaching machine came into play since it reinforced learning, but there was question as to whether it truly benefited learning or hindered it by making students act like robots. Skinner also suggests that the main thing people learn from being punished is how to avoid punishment.
In The Technology of Teaching, Skinner has a chapter on why teachers fail (pages 93–113): Essentially he says that teachers have not been given an in-depth understanding of teaching and learning. Without knowing the science underpinning teaching, teachers fall back on procedures that work poorly or not at all, such as:
Skinner suggests that any age-appropriate skill can be taught. The steps are
Skinner's views on education are extensively presented in his book The Technology of Teaching. It is also reflected in Fred S. Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and Ogden R. Lindsley's Precision Teaching. The limitations of Skinner's views can be seen from his argument that it is: 'a step forward' to 'abolish' the 'autonomous inner man.' (Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971) p. 215)
Skinner associated punishment with avoidance. For example, he thought a child may be forced to practice playing his instrument as a form of seemingly productive discipline. This child would then associate practicing with punishment and thus learn to hate and avoid practicing the instrument. Additionally, teachers who use educational activities to punish children could cause inclinations towards rebellious behavior such as vandalism and opposition to education.
Skinner is popularly known mainly for his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. The former describes a visit to a fictional experimental community in 1940s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world because of their practice of scientific social planning and use of operant conditioning in the raising of children.
Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden, champions a lifestyle that does not support war or foster competition and social strife. It encourages a lifestyle of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness, satisfying work and leisure. In 1967, Kat Kinkade founded the intentional community Twin Oaks, using Walden Two as a blueprint. The community is still in existence today and continues to use the Planner-Manager system and other aspects of the original book in its self-governance.
In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner suggests that a technology of behavior could help to make a better society. We would, however, have to accept that an autonomous agent is not the driving force of our actions. Skinner offers alternatives to punishment and challenges his readers to use science and modern technology to construct a better society.
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. He comprehended political control as aversive or non-aversive, with the purpose to control a population. Skinner supported the use of positive reinforcement as a means of coercion, citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Emile: or, On Education as an example of freedom literature that "did not fear the power of positive reinforcement". 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 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, as good science applied correctly would help society, and allow all people to cooperate with each other peacefully. Skinner described his novel as "my New Atlantis", in reference to Bacon's utopia. He opposed corporal punishment in the school, and wrote a letter to the California Senate that helped lead it to a ban on spanking.
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.
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 (e.g. Staddon and Simmelhag, 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 (as opposed to 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).
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.
Perhaps Skinner's best known critic, Noam Chomsky, published a review of Skinner's Verbal Behavior two years after it was published. The review (1959) became better known than the book itself. Chomsky's review has been credited with launching the cognitive movement in psychology and other disciplines. Skinner, who rarely responded directly to critics, never formally replied to Chomsky's critique. Many years later, Kenneth MacCorquodale's reply was endorsed by Skinner.
Chomsky also reviewed Skinner's Beyond Freedom and Dignity, using the same basic motives as his Verbal Behavior review. Among Chomsky's criticisms 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, and that Skinner had no science of behavior.
Skinner received honorary degrees from:
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