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Burrhus Fredric Skinner was an American psychologist famous for creating and subscribing to the concept of behaviorism. Skinner was born on 20th March 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He was born to William Skinner, who was a lawyer, and Grace Skinner, who was a homemaker (Skinner 16). He had one younger sibling named Edward, who died in his teenage years due to a cerebral hemorrhage attack. Despite being brought up in an old fashioned manner, Skinner was a very hard-working and outgoing boy who showed great passion for school and learning activities (Rutherford 26). He did not believe in the existence of God because one of his teachers, a Christian, had tried to gain his goodwill over the concerns he had concerning the world of the dead. Skinner was an alumnus of Hamilton College and Harvard University (Skinner 21).
His goal was to become a writer, a dream he pursued passionately while attending Hamilton College. While there, he wrote for the institution’s newspaper. His articles were very famous among the student fraternity because of the manner he called attention to errors and flaws in religion (Skinner 22). His sentiments were influenced by the fact that he was an atheist who had attended a religious school.
In 1926, Skinner graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in English literature. He then proceeded to Harvard University, where he continued his studies and later became a teacher. Skinner started his journey towards changing the field of psychology at Harvard University, together with Fred Keller, who also studied at the prestigious institution of higher education (Rutherford 126). Together with Keller, Skinner developed an interest in learning about human behavior.
This realization compelled them to come up with experiments that would enable them to study the way people behaved. At the time, Skinner constructed a model experiment tool that later came to be called the Skinner box (Rutherford 128). Soon after graduating from Harvard, Skinner started his career as a writer, although it never picked up as he had expected. This period marked some of his darkest years and concluded with Skinner losing faith in his writing abilities. He felt that his perspective towards life was not broad enough to provide a solid basis for a successful writing career.
However, soon after the disappointing realization about his writing career, Skinner came across one of John Watson’s works named Behaviorism, that reignited his passion for psychology (Skinner 40). This made him enroll for a graduate course in psychology and also motivated him to come up with his version of behaviorism. Skinner taught at the University of Minnesota and Indiana University following his graduation with a doctorate in psychology from Harvard University. He later returned to his alma mater as a psychology professor in 1948 until his death. Skinner died on 18th August 1990 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as a result of leukemia (Skinner 49).
He left behind a family of three, two daughters and his wife, Yvonne Blue. Throughout his life, Skinner had attracted a lot of controversies, much of which came out of his criticism of religion. Over the years, he was often regarded with feelings of respect and reverence for developing scientific ways of understanding human behavior, as well as for the great achievements he had acquired (Rutherford 200).
Skinner is best known for the operant conditioning, a theory he created to show the relationship between behavior and consequences. According to the theory, the actions of human beings depend on the consequences faced by other similar actions. If someone does something and the effects are positive, the chances of the action happening again are always very high (Lattal 1070). On the other hand, if the effects of an action are negative, the probability of the action that led to such consequences happening again is very slim. This theory was developed from the principle of reinforcement, which in psychology refers to a stimulus that strengthens or weakens the behavior that produced it. Skinner developed several concepts that played a crucial role in the development of the science of mental life (Skinner, 100).
The mind is the center of everything that human beings do, a phenomenon that fascinated Skinner a lot and influenced his passion for psychology. Skinner is also known for developing the Skinner box and the cumulative recorder (Lattal 1071). He developed the two devices to aid his development of the operant conditioning theory by measuring the frequency at which people repeated their actions as a result of the consequences experienced (Rutherford 211). Skinner is also known for creating radical behaviorism, a school of thought that investigated the science of human behavior.
Another notable invention that Skinner developed was the baby tender, which was a request from his wife. His wife wanted him to create a modern version of the traditional baby bed with high sides made of slats (Rutherford 226).
However, this invention attracted a lot of criticism and misguided information, as people did not understand the real essence of developing it. Rumors spread across the United States and beyond, stating that the invention was an experiment that had even resulted in the death of Skinner’s daughter. However, these rumors were confirmed later as being false and people urged to embrace the invention, as it was better and competitively priced compared to the traditional ones. Some of the people who had the biggest influence on Skinner included Charles Darwin, Ernst Mach, Henry David Thoreau, and Jacques Loeb among others (Skinner 113).
Apart from his involvement in the development of psychology, Skinner was also a renowned author. In his life, Skinner managed to write more than twenty books and publish close to two hundred articles. The contemporary academic world has recognized Skinner severally for his work by identifying him as one of the people that have had the greatest influence on the development of authorship across the world (Nevid 60). For his efforts towards the development of psychology, Skinner was recognized in 1990 by the American Psychology Association (APA) as having had the most influence over the 20th Century (Nevid 72). Two of the most famous people who worked closely with Skinner were John Watson (1878-1958) and Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936).
Influence on psychology
Studies have established that Skinner influenced the development of psychology in numerous ways. Some of the notable contributions that he made to the field of psychology include the theory of radical behaviorism, development of a theoretical structure, creation of operant behavior, explanation of complex behavior, and the introduction of reinforcement (Skinner 145).
Radical behaviorism refers to a conceptual analysis of human behavior developed by Skinner. The school of thought behind this concept relies on two major concepts, namely the experimental analysis of behavior and applied behavior analysis. According to the two concepts, human behavior is a response triggered by the environment. In this context, the environment refers to the consequences that someone experiences from their actions (Iversen 1319).
Unlike other explanations of human behavior, the concept of radical behaviorism argues that human behavior can be easily influenced by the cognitive process, as well as emotions. Skinner believed that people tend to express their thoughts and feelings through behavior (Lattal, 1076). This is evidenced in the fact that the behavior of someone having positive thoughts is very different from that of someone mourning the death of a loved one. Many scholars have applauded Skinner for the unique way in which he observed human behavior and confirmed that an individual’s immediate environment has a direct impact on their behavior (Skinner 150).
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Skinner also established that the more someone gets preoccupied with negative or positive thoughts that the course their behavior will take. Interestingly, the environment influences the thought process of human beings a lot in terms of the elements captured using the six senses (Nevid 79).
Development of theoretical structure
Skinner influenced the development of psychology by introducing numerous ways in which theories can be developed. There are numerous ways of identifying and explaining human behavior. Through his first published book, Skinner gives a detailed explanation of the way he developed his theories by observing and analyzing human behavior across different environmental conditions (Chiesa 1280).
According to Skinner, there are two major categories of human behavior, namely respondent and operant. The main difference between the two is the controlling factors. Respondent behavior refers to human actions or reactions controlled by any form of provoking arousal (Chiesa 1280). This type of demeanor often happens due to certain conditions that someone is used to experiencing in their immediate environment. On the other hand, operant behavior refers to actions or reactions that rely on other stimuli for someone to respond in a certain way (Rutherford 300).
Although these behaviors had been researched and argued before, Skinner introduced a new dimension that changed the way people understood them. First, Skinner addressed the controversy that had surrounded operant behaviors by seeking to understand behavior reinforcement and their source within the body. In addition, he sought to understand the way a behavior response moves inside the body to influence a certain type of behavior (Skinner 206).
Creation of operant behavior
The theoretical structures that Skinner used to study the science behind human behavior led to the emergence of operant behavior. Skinner established that human behavior was subject to the consequences of past actions (Iversen, 1322). His explanation was highly influenced by various concepts developed by Charles Darwin in his explanation of human origin. Human beings tend to behave depending on the kind of reinforcement they receive from the effects of past actions. If the consequences are positive, the chances of the action happening again are higher compared to an action that results in negative consequences (Rutherford 308).
The more an action repeats it’s self, the higher the chances of some behavioral traits to become consistent. In some situations, someone can portray some behavioral traits that indicate superstition. This normally happens when the reaction that stimulates a response does not have any relation to the reinforcement behind previous actions (Chiesa 1289). Skinner also developed an explanation to describe the source of behavior reinforces and the way they influence operant demeanor. Human behavior is often regulated by stimuli, which is also responsible for controlling the tendencies that someone portrays (Nevid 99).
In order to ensure that people understood factors that influenced operant behavior clearly, Skinner developed one of his most famous concepts called stimulus-response-reinforcement (Chiesa 1293). The three elements are responsible for influencing different behavior of people.
Complex behavior and reinforcement
Studies have established that explaining human behavior is a complex process that requires careful consideration of the interplay of factors that influence different kinds of responses. Skinner developed his own concepts to explain the complexity of human behavior. First, Skinner identified that some human behaviors are a result of sequential responses, some of which passive (Iversen 1328).
This means that responses from different actions often chain together to influence a certain response evidenced in an individual’s behavior. Skinner also added that the stimulus that influences different kinds of reactions by people depends on the intensity of the preceding actions. He argued that people tend to behave depending on the intensity of the elements that define their immediate environment (Iversen 1328).
For example, when someone is walking at night along a dark path and then a very bright light from an oncoming vehicle directed at them, the possible reactions are turning around, stopping, or continuing walking with a hidden face. Skinner said that such reactions are influenced by past similar experiences (Lattal 1081). People tend to develop responses, depending on the consequences suffered in past experiences. However, Skinner was very critical of the fact that such behaviors cannot appear every time, as some responses happen only once when someone is experiencing a new adventure or the environment (Nevid 110). He argued that complex behaviors are common among adults mainly because they involve the combination of the successive stimulus.
One of the crucial concepts that Skinner developed to explain his version of behaviorism was reinforcement. He developed the concept to refer to a stimulus that strengthens or weakens the behavior that produces it (Lattal 1083).
Research has established that in the contemporary field of psychology, reinforcement is also used to refer to an act performed to strengthen approved behavior. Skinner identified two types of reinforcement, namely, positive and negative. Positive enforcement refers to a situation when certain behaviors are strengthened or emphasized though the things that take place after its occurrence, such as praise.
On the other hand, negative reinforcement refers to a situation when a behavior is followed by aversive stimuli such as punishment or pain (Lattal 1085). Skinner argued that both negative and positive reinforcements have a lot of influence on behavior, in terms of determining the probability of an event occurring again. He added that the two types of consequences influence human behavior in terms of the choices that people make (Nevid 130). Skinner also developed a number of schedules that explained the manner in which human behavior is reinforced.
Studies have established that Skinner was one of the main people that influenced the early development of psychology in the world. He contributed a lot to the development of the field of psychology, especially in the way he expanded the concept of behaviorism. He was very hard-working, dedicated to his work, and always showed a desire to learn new things about the complex nature of human behavior. Skinner developed numerous principles, most of which are still relevant and influential in the contemporary world in addressing challenges such as phobias and addictive behaviors in people. More than two decades after his death, Skinner is still a household name and a regular point of reference in the modern field of psychology.
Chiesa, Mecca. Radical behaviorism and scientific frameworks: from mechanistic to relational accounts. American Psychologists 47.11 (2014): 1278-1299. Print.
Iversen, Iver. Skinner’s early research: from reflexology to operant conditioning. American Psychologists 47.11 (2014): 1318-1328. Print.
Lattal, Kennon. Reflections on B.F. Skinner and psychology. American Psychologists 47.11(2014): 1068-1089. Print.
Nevid, Jeffrey. Psychology: Concepts and Applications. New York: Cengage Learning, 2011. Print.
Rutherford, Alexandra. Beyond the Box: B.F. Skinner’s Technology of Behavior from Laboratory to life, 1950s-1970s. New York: Cengage Learning, 2015. Print.
Skinner, Burrhus. Science and Human Behavior. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2012. Print.