B. F. Skinner and Behavior Analysis essay

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This paper reviews history of B. F. Skinner and his contributions to the science of behavior analysis. Besides, the paper explores current applications of applied behavior analysis, which is based on the principles of behavior developed by B. F. Skinner and other neo-behaviorist scientists. In the following discussions, it becomes apparent that Skinner is one of the most influential behaviorists of the 20th century because of his profound and practical contributions to behavior analysis. He is credited for establishing the science of operant behavior analysis. He is also known for making major contributions to applied behavior analysis through his style which is behavioral, analytic, and technological in nature and his content that is conceptually systematic. Moreover, Skinner’s principles of behavior and their application to different cultures and practices in the contemporary society and other institutions are also discussed in great detail. 

B. F. Skinner and Behavior Analysis

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) is perhaps the most known American psychologist, author, poet, and social philosopher of the 20th century. He was born and raised in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania by his father who was a lawyer and his civic-minded mother who always encouraged him to be aware of his thoughts and those of other people. Skinner had a younger brother who died of a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 16. As a young man, Skinner became an atheist, particularly after a liberal Christian teacher advised him to overcome the fear of Hell instilled in him by his grandmother. Skinner attended Hamilton College after graduating as valedictorian from his former high school in 1922. At Hamilton, he joined a social circle the Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity and began writing short stories in his second year of studies. His works appeared in the school paper, where his atheistic philosophy became apparent because he was very critical of religious foundations promoted by his school (Prilleltensky, 1994; Epstein, 1991; Bjork, 1993).

Subsequently, Skinner attended Harvard University and graduated with a Bachelor degree in English literature in 1926. Following his graduation from Harvard, Skinner spent some time in Scranton trying to become a fiction writer. However, after encountering B. Watson’s works in behaviorism, he decided to enroll for graduate studies in psychology. This led to the development of his own philosophical perspective better known as radical behaviorism. In 1931 Skinner received a PhD from Harvard University whereby he was a researcher until 1936. He also taught psychology in the University of Minnesota and Indiana University before returning to Harvard in 1948 where he taught psychology until the end of his career. During his life-time Skinner was married to Yvonne Blue with whom he had two daughters: Julie and Deborah. In 1990, Skinner died of leukemia. In his career, Skinner made various inventions such as the operant conditioning box and the cumulative recorder besides developing the theory of radical behaviorism and the school of experimental research known as the experimental analysis of behavior. He also published different influential works in psychology such as the “Verbal Behavior”, “Walden Two”, and “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” (Bjork, 1993; Skinner, 1938). These essays examine the theory of radical behaviorism, present Skinner’s contributions to behavior analysis and discuss applications of behavior analysis in the contemporary society.

Radical Behaviorism

Behaviorism is a school of thought, which proposes that physical actions should be treated as behaviors. This implies that most behaviorists believe that thoughts, actions, and even feelings should be considered as behaviors. Furthermore, the behaviorist school of thought proposes that psychological disorders should be treated by modifying behavioral patterns or the surrounding environment. This proposition is based on the observation that various responses to environmental stimuli play a central role in shaping behaviors. As a result, behavior can be studied scientifically without paying attention to psychological mental states, internal physiological events, or any hypothetical constructs. More specifically, behaviorists maintain that one cannot differentiate between actions (publicly observable events) and thoughts or feelings (privately observable processes). There are many versions of behaviorism including John B. Watson’s methodological behaviorism, B. F. Skinner’s radical behaviorism, and other post-Skinnerian versions such as teleological, theoretical, biological, and psychological behaviorism (Morris, Smith & Altus, 2005).

Skinner’s version of behaviorism is of particular interest because in contrast to J. B. Watson’s methodological behaviorism radical behaviorism seeks to study behavioral processes within the organism. This implies that the approach taken by Skinner is not mechanistic or reductionistic in nature. Here, it is worth noting that radical behaviorism does not consider hypothetical mental states including thinking, unobservable emotions, and perceptions as causes of behavior. Therefore, in order for a phenomenon to have a causal effect on organism’s behavior, it must be observable or felt. As a result, the position of radical behaviorism is that the causes of behavior must be felt or introspectively observed. This means that causes of behavior should not be non-physical or hypothetical in nature. However, it is important to note that some causes of behavior are far beyond introspection and that the environment plays a major role in shaping behavior. Most importantly, Skinner observed that behavioral changes could be maintained from one situation to another through applying similar consequences (Rutherford, 2000).

In his experiments, Skinner invented an apparatus, which could control behavior in rats. Skinner’s devise comprised of a runway and a box fixed with a lever, which could deliver a food pellet after the rat pushed it. In addition, Skinner devised the cumulative recorder, which could record the number of times the rat pushed the lever to deliver the food pellet. Furthermore, his device allowed the rat to obtain one pellet after pushing the lever in a specific number of times. As a result, Skinner managed to control the behavior of the rat through different schedules of behavior reinforcement. In fact, he ensured that the rat developed the lever-pushing behavior in such a way that the rat showed a constant rate of lever-pushing behavior each time it was introduced to a different schedule of reinforcement. Moreover, Skinner observed that the rate of lever-pushing was as normal as the heart beat. In contrast to other experiments such as the stimulus-response conditioning, which conditioned surgically-altered organisms to analyze behavior, Skinner’s experiments used intact organisms mostly rats and pigeons (Rutherford, 2000; Morris et al., 2005).

Skinner’s approach to behavior reinforcement and conditioning is reffered to as operant conditioning. He favored this method of behavior analysis because it was identifiable and controllable unlike the stimulus-response model, which relied on unobservable constructs. Through his experiments, Skinner established ways of understanding behavior through what is commonly referred to as the science of operant behavior analysis. Furthermore, his experiments cemented the position of reinforcement in behaviorism in that both positive and negative reinforcement were considered central in strengthening and increasing the likelihood of reoccurring of various behaviors. Here, it is important to note that there are different types of reinforcement, which include continuous reinforcement, interval reinforcement, and ratio reinforcement. On the other hand, Skinner noted that behavior can be weakened through punishment or removal of the desired stimulus (Rutherford, 2000). Overall, Skinner’s contributions to applied behavior analysis are immense and far-reaching.

Skinner’s Contributions to Applied Behavior Analysis

From the foregoing discussions, it is apparent that Skinner made many profound and practical contributions to psychology, particularly in the area of applied behavior analysis. First and foremost, Skinner made fundamental contributions to applied behavior analysis in terms of the style (methodology) and content (basic principles) of his works. Generally, Skinner’s style can be described as behavioral, analytic, and technological in nature. In fact, he ensured that his works, experiments, and apparatus involved reliable description, experimental control, and accurate prediction. Here, it is important to note that in terms of prediction and experimental control Skinner’s experiments did not rely on correlations between variables, but rather on their functional relations (functional analysis). Furthermore, Skinner preferred direct experimental control of variables to statistical analyses in demonstrating functional relations between variables. Moreover, he used functional relations between variables to describe basic principles of behavior in his experiments. Additionally, Skinner integrated different principles of behavior into one another in order to come up with a theory of behavior. Basically, the foregoing characteristics of Skinner’s works distinguish his contributions to behavior analysis from those of other behaviorists. More specifically, Skinner’s style was more inclined to research programs with immediate social importance considering that it was behavioral, analytic, and technological in all aspects (Rutherford, 2000; Sundberg & Michael, 2001).

On the other hand, the content of Skinner’s works can be described as being conceptually systematic. In fact, from the foregoing discussions it is imperative to note that Skinner made various contributions to current principles of behavior analysis. For instance, he devised ways of determining operant reinforcement and extinction besides describing various schedules of reinforcement. Furthermore, Skinner made significant contributions to the development of stimulus control and establishment of behavior operations. Moreover, his contributions to respondent conditioning, stimulus generalization, and aversive control cannot be overlooked. Generally, the principles of behavior developed by Skinner after 1938 helped to shape the conceptually systematic aspect of the field of applied behavior analysis. Therefore, Skinner is credited for establishing the science of operant behavior analysis, which forms the core of foundations and dimensions of applied behavior analysis today (Rutherford, 2000; Morris et al., 2005). Moreover, soon after publishing The Behavior of Organisms, a book which documented all principles of behavior he had deducted from his experiments, Skinner began contemplating on ways of extending his animal-based science of behavior to human affairs.

In 1934 Skinner extended his research of behavior to study of verbal behavior whereby he analyzed Stein’s style of writing, which he described as being automatic writing. According to Skinner, automatic writing occurs when reading and writing take place simultaneously and independently. Through other significant publications Skinner developed the verbal summator, which was later adopted in clinical psychology and incorporated into the Rorschach test for audibility. However, the summator was later dropped due to methodological reasons. Further, Skinner made significant contributions to behavioral pharmacology whereby he examined effects of caffeine and benzedrine on behavioral conditioning and extinction alongside W. T. Heron. On the other hand, Skinner tried his hand in behavioral engineering in 1937 whereby he replicated a previous study in which chimpanzees were conditioned to trade poker chips for food. Similarly, Skinner trained a rat on how to obtain food by pulling a string in order to release a marble, which later was traded for food. Through this study, skinner was able to show the importance of positive reinforcement in applied behavior analysis. Other remarkable contributions of Skinner to the field of applied behavior analysis involve his studies on anxiety, perceptions, and cultural practices in relation to behavior analysis (Rutherford, 2000; Morris et al., 2005).

Applications of Behavior Analysis

Skinner’s work in behavior analysis has been influential in shaping culture and other practices in contemporary societies and other institutions. Currently, different principles in behavior analysis are employed in different settings including schools, industries, parenting courses, hospitals, and government agencies (Prilleltensky, 1994; Sundberg & Michael, 2001; Wilder, Austin & Casella, 2009; Mattaini, 1993; Foxall, 2001). According to Sundberg and Michael (2001), behavioral treatment for children with autism has experienced major advances, which are attributable to various developments in the field of applied behavior analysis. In fact, through behavior analysis, many researchers have managed to discover a lot of information about autism, which is now helping in terms of guiding the development of new treatment approaches. For instance, studies indicate that early and intensive interventions, particularly the application of behavioral techniques aimed at developing language skills can be very effective in management of autism. Basic approach in the behavioral treatment of autism involves the process of identifying specific goals in addressing various behavioral deficits or excesses. However, the ultimate goal should be modification of behavior in a way that produces socially acceptable results. As a result, various approaches such as identifying behaviors to be altered, identifying effective schedules of reinforcement, stimulus prompting, use of extinction, development of chaining, imitation, and stimulus generalization are just a few principles of behavior, which are very important in the management of autism. Furthermore, in order to ensure validity and reliability of behavioral procedures, there is a need for researchers to carry out direct observations, within-subject comparisons, and other methodological adjustments before implementing procedures on a case-by-case manner (Sundberg & Michael, 2001).

On the other hand, different principles of behavior analysis have found application in organizational behavior management (Wilder et al., 2009). Here, behavioral principles have been applied to individual and group behavior management practices in business institutions, industries, and human service settings. More specifically, organizational behavior management is based on the principles and theories of applied behavior analysis, which include operant and respondent procedures developed by Skinner and other contemporary behaviorists. The aim of applying behavioral principles to individuals and groups in different organizations is to bring about socially-acceptable change in their behavior. As a result, organizational behavior management comprises of performance management, behavior-based safety, and systems analysis. All these approaches are designed to address lack of knowledge and skills, quality deficits, and to ensure productivity improvement (Wilder et al., 2005).

Furthermore, some principles of behavior analysis are in use in other organizational practices such as consumer behavior analysis and marketing. Here, different principles of behavior, which are usually experimental, are used to determine patterns of human economic consumption and spending. As a result, the science of behavior plays a major role in providing necessary theoretical and empirical research on purchasing, brand choice, consumption of services, gambling, saving, and adoption of various innovations in the society (Foxall, 2001). Moreover, consumer researchers and their counterparts in marketing find it necessary to employ different behavior principles to interpret and explain consumer behavior in relation to different economic activities. However, the fact that most studies underlying experimental analysis of behavior are animal-based limits the application of some basic principles of behavior analysis in marketing (Foxall, 2001). This implies that behavioral scientists alongside their consumer researchers and marketing professionals have a long way to go in terms of ensuring that current experimental studies on animals are extended to human affairs. In so doing, the science of behavior analysis will find possible and far-reaching applications in marketing and other business fields.


Burrhus Frederic Skinner is one of the greatest American psychologists, particularly the neo-behaviorism scientists, to have lived in the 20h century. In his career he developed the theory of radical behaviorism, which emphasizes the role of the environment and functional analysis in various procedures of behavior analysis. More specifically, Skinner’s science of behavior emphasizes operant conditioning in which a specific behavior is maintained from one situation to another by applying similar consequences. This form of behavioral conditioning utilizes reinforcement, which takes the form of continuous, interval, and ratio reinforcement in strengthening and increasing the probability that a certain behavior will re-occur. Furthermore, Skinner has made profound practical contributions to the field of applied behavior analysis through his experiments and literary works. For instance, his contribution to behavior analysis involves verbal analysis, behavioral pharmacology, behavioral engineering, and other aspects of personality such as anxiety and perceptions. On the other hand, Skinner’s animal-based experiments have been extended to other human affairs. Currently, various principles of behavior analysis are applied in different cultures, numerous practices in the contemporary society, and in other institutions. More specifically, behavior analysis is a core practice in most organizations such as hospitals whereby it is applied for treatment of children with autism. It is also applied in other business settings whereby behavior analysis forms the core of organizational behavior management as well as in the analysis of consumer behavior. From the foregoing discussions, there is no doubt that Burrhus Frederic Skinner is one of the most influential behaviorists to have lived in the 20th century.

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