B. F. Skinner, one of the most influential and controversial psychologists of the 20th Century, died Saturday of leukemia at a hospital near his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 86 years old.
The dean of modern behaviorists, Burrhus Frederic Skinner--Fred to his friends--had his final paper, a defense of his behavioral theories, presented this month in Boston to a convention of 20,000 psychologists from around the world. He argued to the end that behavior is determined by an individual’s surroundings and there is little or no “free will.”
“I’m writing a paper which is my summing up of what psychology is all about and attacking cognitive psychologists,” Skinner told the Associated Press shortly before the convention. “The cognitive psychologists won’t like it, but that doesn’t bother me at all.
“I will be dead in a few months,” he added with a laugh. “But it hasn’t given me the slightest anxiety or worry or anything; I always knew I was going to die.”
Among the public at large, B. F. Skinner was perhaps less famous as one of the great names in psychology than as the man who taught pigeons to play table tennis and guide missiles--practical applications of his conditioning theories--and as the inventor of a mechanical baby tender in which his own daughter lived for 2 1/2 years and of the Skinner Box used in behavioral research. He was the author of both fiction and nonfiction in which he expounded his controversial views in clear and forceful prose.
Of some 16 books bearing Skinner’s name, including a three-volume autobiography, perhaps the two best known were his utopian novel, “Walden Two,” and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” a nonfiction best seller in which he advocated forsaking individual freedom and dignity in favor of controlling human behavior to achieve a world free of war, pollution and other social evils.
He also pioneered teaching machines, demonstrating his first in 1954, and programmed learning.
Skinner, professor emeritus of psychology and social relations at Harvard, fathered the experimental analysis of behavior in which an organism’s behavior was studied in a controlled laboratory environment.
In his theory of operant conditioning, Skinner held that behavior could be controlled by the skillful, systematic use of rewards--or positive reinforcers--to encourage desired responses. In other words, the environment could be manipulated to produce desirable behavior.
Skinner formulated his theories after studying rats and pigeons, but he maintained that these laws of behavior applied to all organisms, including man. Nor did he hesitate to extend these theories to other areas, including linguistics in “Verbal Behavior” (1957), teaching in “The Technology of Teaching” (1968) and finally to culture in “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (1971).
His rejection of free will and his advocacy of behavioral engineering outraged religious leaders and others both within psychology and without. His critics were not mollified by his observation: “The organism whose behavior I observed most closely was myself.”
He was dismissed by his critics, who included Arthur Koestler and Joseph Wood Krutch, as a “rat psychologist” or, worse, a totalitarian. Skinner, one critic said, confused people and pigeons. Krutch accused Skinner of dehumanizing people by “conditioning them into perfect virtue.”
Skinner believed that these critics and even some of his friends profoundly misunderstood his ideas. He did not want to control people, he maintained. He used the word control, he said, as an astronomer might do in speaking of the control one planet exercises on another.
“People were controlled by their physical and social environments, but that did not mean that any person should control them,” he wrote in the third volume of his autobiography, “A Matter of Consequences.”
Nor did Skinner, public perception to the contrary, advocate punishment. In fact, he disliked it and thought it an ineffective method of control because the punished does not so much seek to change his behavior as to avoid punishment. Skinner thought positive reinforcement, or rewards, would work better and with fewer unhappy side effects.
Although Skinner could be critical of himself--once noting: “I do not admire myself as a person. My successes do not override my shortcomings"--the criticism leveled at his theories bothered him to the point that eventually he could no longer read much of it. And during the controversy that enveloped him following the publication of “Beyond Freedom and Dignity,” he suffered from angina.
But by the 1980s Skinner, by then frail and bird-like, seemed to generate more reverence, awe, even affection, than contention among psychological colleagues. They gave him standing ovations after his speeches, which at times criticized some of them, at the American Psychological Assn. conventions. He was sometimes besieged by autograph seekers and fans in scenes more reminiscent of a movie premiere than a professional gathering. At the convention this month, the American Psychological Assn. gave him a lifetime contribution citation.
But the grand old man of behaviorism was not happy about the trends he saw in psychology. In the waning years of Skinner’s life, cognitive psychology with its emphasis on the mind was to increase in influence. Skinner termed cognitive psychology a retreat to ancient explanations of human behavior, to love, will, feelings, states of mind.
He complained of a “conspicuous relaxation” in the use of scientific principles. “Nothing of importance was happening in psychology,” he said. “In divorcing itself from behaviorism . . . it was relinquishing its claim to being a science.”
Perhaps Skinner was best summed up, both professionally and personally, by the citation that accompanied the American Psychological Assn.'s Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award, which was presented to him in 1958. It called him “an imaginative and creative scientist, characterized by great objectivity in scientific matters and by warmth and enthusiasm in personal contacts.”
Skinner was born March 20, 1904, in the railroad town of Susquehanna, Pa., to William Arthur Skinner, a lawyer, and Grace Burrhus Skinner, whose maiden name became her son’s unusual first name. Of it, Skinner observed: “It has always been troublesome: It must be spelled out and explained.” So to his friends, he was Fred.
He described his boyhood as “warm and stable.” He wrote that he was never punished by his father and only once by his mother who, when he used a bad word, washed his mouth out with soap.
As a boy Skinner was intrigued by mechanics and gadgets, and built everything from steerable sleds and rafts to a steam cannon that would shoot plugs of potato and carrot over neighbors’ houses. He failed, however, in his attempts to make a perpetual motion machine and a glider in which he could fly.
During high school he held a variety of jobs from collecting telephone bills and selling shoes to playing saxophone in a jazz band and writing for the local newspaper, where he composed a few ads, wrote reminiscences of the town and occasionally covered a meeting or concert.
He had begun writing stories and poems at an early age, and the original aspiration of the youth who would become a giant of behavioral psychology was for a literary career. When he went to Hamilton College at Clinton, N.Y., he majored in English and contributed to the campus literary and humor magazines.
After graduating from college in 1926, Skinner opted to spend a year writing fiction and soon “discovered the unhappy fact that I had nothing to say.”
As he floundered about during that “dark year” in search of a vocation, he read a series of magazine articles by philosopher Bertrand Russell that dealt in part with John B. Watson’s behaviorism.
In 1913 Watson, revolting against introspection and speculation in psychology, had called for it to become a science of behavior rather than a study of the mind. Man’s behavior should be studied by external observation and measurement just as that of other animals was.
Forget man’s mind, Watson had said. Even if it existed, it could not be studied objectively by observation and measurement as behavior could. Watson’s challenge led to a deep schism in psychology between behaviorists and mentalists.
When years later Skinner told Russell that his articles had converted him to behaviorism, the philosopher replied: “Good heavens, I thought it had demolished behaviorism.”
A 1927 magazine article in which H. G. Wells praised Ivan Pavlov, the father of classical or Pavlovian conditioning, over playwright George Bernard Shaw confirmed Skinner’s decision to abandon literature for psychology.
With that decision made, he pleasurably sampled the Bohemian life in Greenwich Village for a few months before entering Harvard University as a graduate psychology student in the fall of 1928.
And at Harvard, the positive reinforcer for his conversion seemed to come less from what he was learning in the classroom than from his work in the machine shop where psychology researchers made much of their own equipment.
“The shop was the center of my activity,” he later wrote.
One result was the Skinner Box, in which a laboratory animal was carefully sealed so that stray stimuli would not contaminate the experiment. In this controlled environment Skinner was able to observe and record the animal’s patterns of behavior to a variety of consequences. The Skinner Box was a more sophisticated descendant of Edward Lee Thorndike’s puzzle box in which the latter had studied the behavior of cats.
Eventually, however, he was to conclude that the early behaviorists were too simplistic in their thinking. Conditioning was more complex and subtle than their simple stimulus-response cycle.
Skinner was awarded his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, but not before his unorthodox doctoral thesis had been rejected by the chairman of his committee. Instead of changing his thesis, Skinner resubmitted it to a new committee, which approved it. (Ironically, 27 years later Skinner would succeed that disapproving chairman as Harvard’s Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology.)
The thesis was the basis for Skinner’s book, “The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis,” published in 1938.
After receiving his doctorate, Skinner remained five more years at Harvard, where he continued his animal research. Skinner worked first with rats and then with pigeons, which had a much longer life span.
In 1936 he accepted a teaching position at the University of Minnesota and on Nov. 1 of that year married Yvonne Blue. The couple had two daughters, Julie, now a psychologist, and Deborah, an artist.
When the Skinners decided to have their second child, Mrs. Skinner said she rather dreaded the first year or two of its infancy.
To simplify the baby’s care, her husband invented a baby tender, an enclosed, crib-sized living space with sound-absorbing walls and a large picture window through which the child could observe the world beyond and be observed. Moist, warm, filtered air was circulated through it so that the baby was freed of the need for clothes and blankets. He rigged it with special toys, and Deborah was frequently taken out for cuddling and play during the 2 1/2 years she spent in the box.
A story about this “air crib” in a national magazine appalled many readers who criticized Skinner for “the baby in the box.”
One person who did not criticize him was Deborah, who many years later as an artist living in London, told an interviewer: “I think I was a very happy baby. Most of the criticisms of the box are by people who don’t understand what it was.”
In 1945, Skinner became a faculty member and briefly chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University. It was in that same year that he wrote his only novel, “Walden Two,” in a seven-week burst of intensive creativity.
It described a behaviorally engineered utopian community founded by an escapee from academic psychology named Frazier whose views corresponded to Skinner’s laboratory findings. The narrator, Burris, a college professor with traditional ideas, was skeptical when he visited the community initially but was eventually persuaded to join it.
“I did not know until I had finished the book that I was both Burris and Frazier,” Skinner later wrote. “I let Frazier say things that I myself was not yet ready to say to anyone. . . . Eventually I became a devout Frazierian.”
The book was not published until 1948, when it drew mixed reviews. “Walden Two” was attacked by some critics, distressed by its behavioral engineering, as a dystopia. The book initially sold only a few thousand copies, but came into its own in the rebellious 1960s. Several communities were formed that attempted to emulate “Walden Two.” By 1982, more than 2 million copies of the book had been sold.
In 1947 Skinner returned to Harvard as a lecturer and the following year became a professor there, where he remained until retiring in 1974.
While visiting his daughter’s fourth grade arithmetic class on Nov. 11, 1953, he was appalled at the way it was being taught. He began applying operant conditioning to the classroom, and the result was a teaching machine with programmed learning that allowed a student to proceed at his own pace and aimed at stimulating his interest with positive reinforcement. Skinner demonstrated his first machine the next year.
After a flurry of interest, however, these machines disappeared from the educational scene and were supplanted a generation later by computers. Skinner blamed the demise of those early machines in part on a burst of commercialism and poor programming by some who rushed into the field.
In later years, Skinner was troubled by declining health. His eyesight and hearing began failing, he underwent radiation therapy for a tumor in a salivary gland and developed leukemia.
Ever the scientific observer, Skinner placed his declining powers in an operant behaviorism context:
“As the senses grow dull, the stimulating environment becomes less clear,” he said. “When reinforcing consequences no longer follow, we are bored, discouraged, and depressed. . . . Our environment is no longer maintaining strong behavior.”