B.F. Skinner Operant Conditioning

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1904 - 1990

Dr. C. George Boeree



Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born March 20, 1904, in the small Pennsylvania town of Susquehanna. His father was a lawyer, and his mother a strong and intelligent housewife. His upbringing was old-fashioned and hard-working.

Burrhus was an active, out-going boy who loved the outdoors and building things, and actually enjoyed school. His life was not without its tragedies, however. In particular, his brother died at the age of 16 of a cerebral aneurysm.

Burrhus received his BA in English from Hamilton College in upstate New York. He didn’t fit in very well, not enjoying the fraternity parties or the football games. He wrote for school paper, including articles critical of the school, the faculty, and even Phi Beta Kappa! To top it off, he was an atheist -- in a school that required daily chapel attendance.

He wanted to be a writer and did try, sending off poetry and short stories. When he graduated, he built a study in his parents’ attic to concentrate, but it just wasn’t working for him.

Ultimately, he resigned himself to writing newspaper articles on labor problems, and lived for a while in Greenwich Village in New York City as a “bohemian.” After some traveling, he decided to go back to school, this time at Harvard. He got his masters in psychology in 1930 and his doctorate in 1931, and stayed there to do research until 1936.

Also in that year, he moved to Minneapolis to teach at the University of Minnesota. There he met and soon married Yvonne Blue. They had two daughters, the second of which became famous as the first infant to be raised in one of Skinner’s inventions, the air crib. Although it was nothing more than a combination crib and playpen with glass sides and air conditioning, it looked too much like keeping a baby in an aquarium to catch on.

In 1945, he became the chairman of the psychology department at Indiana University. In 1948, he was invited to come to Harvard, where he remained for the rest of his life. He was a very active man, doing research and guiding hundreds of doctoral candidates as well as writing many books. While not successful as a writer of fiction and poetry, he became one of our best psychology writers, including the book Walden II, which is a fictional account of a community run by his behaviorist principles.

August 18, 1990, B. F. Skinner died of leukemia after becoming perhaps the most celebrated psychologist since Sigmund Freud.


B. F. Skinner’s entire system is based on operant conditioning. The organism is in the process of “operating” on the environment, which in ordinary terms means it is bouncing around its world, doing what it does. During this “operating,” the organism encounters a special kind of stimulus, called a reinforcing stimulus, or simply a reinforcer. This special stimulus has the effect of increasing the operant -- that is, the behavior occurring just before the reinforcer. This is operant conditioning: “the behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the organisms tendency to repeat the behavior in the future.”

Imagine a rat in a cage. This is a special cage (called, in fact, a “Skinner box”) that has a bar or pedal on one wall that, when pressed, causes a little mechanism to release a food pellet into the cage. The rat is bouncing around the cage, doing whatever it is rats do, when he accidentally presses the bar and -- hey, presto! -- a food pellet falls into the cage! The operant is the behavior just prior to the reinforcer, which is the food pellet, of course. In no time at all, the rat is furiously peddling away at the bar, hoarding his pile of pellets in the corner of the cage.

A behavior followed by a reinforcing...
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