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B. F. Skinner
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B. F. Skinner

B. F. Skinner is perhaps best known as the inventor of the operant conditioning chamber, known to many as the Skinner Box. Born in 1904 in Pennsylvania, he grew up in a warm and stable family home. He was an inventive child, making practical contraptions to improve his daily life. An example of this is his Elderberry Sorter that separated green berries from ripe ones, which he sold around the neighborhood.

BF Skinner
B. F. Skinner, you dirty rat.
 

He was admonished at school by his teacher, for repeating a remark of his father's, that Francis Bacon was the author of Shakespeare's plays. Wanting to decide for himself, he studied Bacon's works in the library. It was there that he discovered the inductive method of scientific research, based on reasoning from particular instances to a general conclusion.

He wanted to become a novelist after leaving college, but realized that was not his forte. After an unproductive year, writing a few articles and building models, he found work in a New York bookshop. Here, he came across the work of Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson. Watson's theoretical work on behaviorism was later tested by Skinner in the laboratory. This was to be the basis of his reputation.

At 24 years of age, B. F. Skinner enrolled at Harvard University, in the Department of Psychology. There, he found a mentor, William Crozier, who was a professor in the new Physiology Department. Skinner was left to carry out his own research, as each department thought he was reporting to the other. With his penchant for building apparatus, he devised his own experiments and modified them in the light of the rats' resulting behavior. He invented the device known as the Cumulative Recorder, that illustrated the rate of response by rats to certain stimuli.

His work led him to his theory of "Operant Conditioning" and a Fellowship enabled him to devote five years to researching this theory. Operant conditioning is based on the idea that our behavior is influenced by the outcome of the same behavior in the past. Skinner believed that the mind and emotions played no part in our behavior, but that it was determined purely by prior reinforcement. This work led to his first book, "The Behavior of Organisms", in 1938.

During the war, Skinner carried out a research project, using pigeons to guide missiles, a project that was overtaken by radar. Toward the end of the war, his wife set him a task of devising a new kind of crib, after she became pregnant. He rose to the challenge and his (then) hi-tech crib became known as the Baby Tender. It became well known and rumors were rife that Skinner was bringing up his daughter in a Skinner Box. The rumors were completely untrue, as his well-balanced daughters have testified.

From 1954 B. F. Skinner turned his attention to the idea of teaching machines, the basis of programmed learning techniques. A correct answer gave the student a positive reinforcement, while an incorrect answer simply presented the question over again. Much of his work in this field is incorporated into modern computer assisted learning techniques. In later life, he devoted his time to moral and philosophical issues, returning to behaviorism again. He was active in his work right up to the day he died in 1990.


Rumor Has It

Even though B. F. Skinner did not raise his own daughter in a Skinner Box, he did in fact, raise other people's children there. In fact, he himself would hide out in the Skinner Box when the missus was looking for him on Saturdays with Honey-Do jar in hand.

Written by Kevin Lepton

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

 


 

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