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B. F. Skinner Biography (1904-1990)

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B. F. Skinner Biography (1904-1990)

B.F. Skinner

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  • b.f. skinner
  • behaviorism
  • operant conditioning
  • history of psychology
"The consequences of behavior determine the probability that the behavior will occur again" --B. F. Skinner

Best Known For:

Birth and Death:

  • B. F. Skinner was born March 20, 1904
  • He died August 18, 1990

Early Years:

B.F. Skinner described his Pennsylvania childhood as "warm and stable." As a boy, he enjoyed building and inventing things; a skill he would later use in his own psychological experiments. He received a B.A. in English literature in 1926 from Hamilton College, and spent some time as a struggling writer before discovering the writings of Watson and Pavlov. Inspired by these works, Skinner decided to abandon his career as a novelist and entered the psychology graduate program at Harvard University.

Skinner married Yvonne Blue in 1936, and the couple went on to have two daughters, Julie and Deborah.


In 1945, Skinner moved to Bloomington, Indiana and became Psychology Department Chair and the University of Indiana. In 1948, he joined the psychology department at Harvard University where he remained for the rest of his life. He became one of the leaders of behaviorism and his work contributed immensely to experimental psychology. He also invented the 'Skinner box,' in which a rat learns to obtain food by pressing a lever.


  • 1966 Edward Lee Thorndike Award, American Psychological Association
  • 1968 - National Medal of Science from President Lyndon B. Johnson
  • 1971 - Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation
  • 1972 - Human of the Year Award
  • 1990 - Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology


Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner is famous for his research on operant conditioning and negative reinforcement. He developed a device called the "cumulative recorder," which showed rates of responding as a sloped line. Using this device, he found that behavior did not depend on the preceding stimulus as Watson and Pavlov maintained. Instead, Skinner found that behaviors were dependent upon what happens after the response. Skinner called this operant behavior.

Schedules of Reinforcement

In his research on operant conditioning, Skinner also discovered and described schedules of reinforcement:

The Baby Tender

B.F. Skinner also invented the "baby tender." It is important to note that the baby tender is not the same as the "Skinner box," which was used in Skinner's experimental research. He created the enclosed heated crib with a plexiglass window in response to his wife's request for a safer alternative to traditional cribs. Ladies Home Journal printed an article on the crib with the title "Baby in a Box," contributing in part to the misunderstanding of the crib's intended use.

Select Publications by B.F. Skinner

  • Skinner, B. F. (1935) Two types of conditioned reflex and a pseudo type Journal of General Psychology, 12, 66-77.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1938) 'Superstition? in the pigeon Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1950) Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review, 57, 193-216.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity
  • Skinner, B. F. (1989) The Origins of Cognitive Thought Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior, Merrill Publishing Company.

Contributions of Psychology

Skinner was a prolific author, publishing nearly 200 articles and more than 20 books. In a 2002 survey of psychologists, he was identified as the most influential 20th-century psychologist. While behaviorism is no longer a dominant school of thought, he work in operant conditioning remains vital today. Mental health professionals often utilize operant techniques when working with clients, teachers frequently use reinforcement and punishment to shape behavior in the classroom, and animal trainers rely heavily on these techniques to train dogs and other animals.

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  • Operant Conditioning - Definition of Operant Conditioning
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