B. F. Skinner
Researched and written by:  Steven A. Parsons Jr.
I attest that the following biography is a product of my own original work..

“The real problem is not whether machines think but whether men do.”  

“We shouldn’t teach great books; we should teach a love of reading.” 



Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania.  His father was a lawyer while his mother stayed at home. His mother had firm standards of what was wrong and what was right.  However, Skinner would describe his early years as stable and warm.  He was interested in building things as a child, such as a steam cannon that shot carrots and potatoes, and a cabin in the woods, just to name a few.  He was also quite interested in animals, and enjoyed teaching pigeons tricks, which hinted what would help him make his contributions to psychology years later.  His early life experiences reflected his psychological views, believing that human experiences were due to past reinforcement and stimuli in the environment. (Schultz, 2004)

Skinner attended a small high school, as indicated by the fact that he graduated with only seven other people.  He then attended Hamilton College in New York.  About the time that Skinner entered college, his younger brother died.  He felt guilty about this because he was not very moved by his brother’s death (Pervin, 2005).  While he was at Hamilton, he joined the fraternity Phi Beta Kappa, but felt that he never quite fitted in.  Skinner was not happy with the college and criticized the administration and the faculty, complaining that most students showed a lack of intellectual interest and being forced to do unnecessary requirements, like attending daily chapel.  He graduated with a degree in English, and was interested in becoming a writer (Schultz, 2004). 

After Hamilton, he lived in Greenwich Village, New York.  He sent three short stories to Robert Frost, who responded with encouragement (Pervin, 2005).  Skinner tried his hand at writing for about two years, but became depressed because of his lack of success.  He picked up a new interest, however, after reading Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes and articles by psychologist Watson and Russell.  Skinner believed psychology to be a relevant science and enrolled at Harvard University in 1928 as a graduate student in psychology.  Three years later he received his Ph. D. and completed his postdoctoral fellowships afterwards (Vargas, 1987). 

Skinner married Yvonne Blue in 1936, and the couple moved to Minneapolis, where Skinner got his first teaching job at the University of Minnesota.  In 1938, the couple had a daughter and named her Julie (Vargas, 1987).  Also that year, Skinner published a book, The Behavior of Organisms.  This book initially flopped when it came out, and was highly criticized and misrepresented.  It was claimed that Skinner viewed people as machines without thoughts, feelings, freedom, or dignity.  Eventually, the book became a huge success (Schultz, 2004). 

Skinner was very interested in controlling and manipulating conditions and animal behavior.  He built a box to do just that, which became known as the “Skinner Box,” in which animals would press bars and receive stimuli, such as food pellets.  He came up with the term operant behavior when he noticed that the rats would press the bar based on the following stimulus, and not the preceding stimulus like Pavlov and Watson thought.  Skinner then came up with operant conditioning, which states that behavior can be controlled by manipulating punishments and rewards in the environment. (Pervin, 2005)


In 1943, Skinner and Yvonne had their second daughter, and named her Deborah.  In 1944, Skinner wanted to help out in some way during World War II, and attempted to train pigeons to guide bombs.  The military was not interested when they came out with radar.  However, Skinner discovered from this that pigeons behaved more rapidly and learned faster than rats, and he never worked with rats again.  In Cumulative Record, Skinner described this experience, which was named Project Pigeon. (Vargas, 1987) 

Skinner eventually became the Chair of the Psychology Department at the University of Indiana.  While at Indiana in 1946, the Society of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior met for the first time, and its journal, the Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, was published twelve years later.  In 1948, Skinner wrote a novel entitled Walden Two, which is about a society based on positive reinforcement to control human behavior (Vargas, 1987).
Skinner then returned to Harvard, and in 1953 he wrote Science and Human Behavior.  In 1957, he published Schedules of Reinforcement, which was based on the work that he did while at Harvard.  Skinner was curious about reinforcement schedules and how it could affect behavior, and discovered that the shorter the length of time between reinforcements, the more rapid the responses were.  The response rate declined when the time between reinforcements increased.  He also found that the animals responded more rapidly on a fixed ratio schedule than on a fixed interval schedule, ratio meaning number of responses and interval meaning time elapsed (Pervin, 2005).


Skinner received a number awards during his life.  The American Psychological Association presented him with the Gold Medal Award, the award for Distinguished Scientific Contribution in 1958, and he also received the National Medal of Science in 1968 (Schultz, 2004).  Also in 1968, he wrote The Technology of Teaching, which summarized his work on his teaching machines and programmed instructions.  He published another book in 1969, entitled Contingencies of Reinforcement, and another book two years later, entitled Beyond Freedom and Dignity.  In 1974, he published About Behaviorism as a response to the misrepresentation and lack of understanding in his work.  Skinner also wrote three autobiographical volumes, Particulars of my Life, The Shaping of a Behaviorist, and A Matter of Consequences (Vargas, 1987). 

Skinner remained productive as he aged.  He wrote a paper entitled “Intellectual Self-Management in Old Age” when he was seventy-eight.  Skinner was diagnosed with Leukemia in 1989, but was not worried about dying and explained the he has had a good life and will continue enjoying his life.  In 1990, at an American Psychological Association convention in Boston, he was awarded the Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology, the first award of its kind.  He also openly attacked cognitive psychology that night.  A week later he was working on an article that criticized cognitive psychology, entitled “Can Psychology be a Science of Mind?”  The next day he slipped into a coma and died at the age of 86 on August 20 (Schultz, 2004). 

Skinner also appeared on the cover of Time magazine (Schultz, 2004).  Skinner’s other contributions to the field of Psychology included positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.  The term reinforcement refers to a behavior that will occur more frequently due to a stimulus.  The term punishment refers to a behavior that decreases in frequency.  Positive refers to the stimulus that is presented and negative refers to the stimulus that is being withdrawn (Pervin, 2005).  

Skinner was probably the most celebrated psychologist of the 20th century.  His contributions to psychology have had a profound effect on how we learn.  He is also the only psychologist who achieved a status like that of a celebrity.  His strict behaviorism point of view isn’t as dominating today because of newer research, but his impact in the field may was greater than any other psychologist at the time.  



Pervin, L. A., Cervone, D., John, O. P.  (2005). Personality: Theory and Research; Ninth Edition.

Schultz, D. P., Schultz, S. E.  (2004). A History of Modern Psychology: Eighth Edition, New York: Harcourt.

Vargas, J. S.  (1987). Brief Biography of B. F. Skinner.  Retrieved April 2, 2005 from bio.asp.



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