Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, hi Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, the first child of William Skinner and Grace Mange Burrhus Skinner. His father was a lawyer and an aspirhig politician while his mother stayed home to care for their two children. Skhmer grew up in a comfortable, happy, upper-middle-class home where his parents practiced the values of temperance, service, honesty, and hard work. The Skinners were Presbyterian, but Fred (he was ahnost never called Burrhus or B. F.) began to lose his faith during high school and thereafter never practiced any religion.
When Skinner was 2V2 years old a second son, Edward was born. Fred felt that Ebbie (as he was known) was loved more by both parents, yet he did not feel unloved. He was shnply more independent and less emotionally attached to his mother and father. But after Ebbie died suddenly during Skhmer's first year at college, the parents became progressively less willing to let then older son go. They wanted him to become "the family boy" and indeed succeeded in keeping him financially obligated even after B. F. Skinner became a well-known name hi American psychology (Skinner, 1979; Wiener, 1996).
As a child Skhmer was inclined toward music and literature. From an early age, he was hiterested in becoming a professional writer, a goal he may have achieved with his publication of Walden Two when he was well hito his 40s.
At about the time Skinner finished high school, his family moved about 30 miles to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Almost immediately, however, Skinner entered Hamilton College, a liberal arts school hi Clinton, New York. After takhig his bachelor's degree hi English, Skhmer set about to realize his ambition of being a creative writer. When he wrote to his father, informing him of his wish to spend a year at home working at nothing except writing, his request was met with lukewarm acceptance. Warning his son of the necessity of making a living, William Skinner reluctantly agreed to support him for 1 year on the condition that he would get a job if his writing career was not successful. This unenthusiastic reply was followed by a more encouraging letter from Robert Frost, who had read some of Skinner's writings.
Skinner returned to his parents' home in Scranton, built a study hi the attic, and every morning went to work at writing. But nothing happened. His efforts were unproductive because he had nothing to say and no firm position on any current issue. Tins "Dark Year" exemplified a powerful identity confusion in Skhuier's life, but as we discuss later in this biographical sketch, tins was not Ins last identity crisis.
At the end of this unsuccessful Dark Year (actually 18 months), Skhuier was faced with the task of looking for a new career. Psychology beckoned. After readhig some of the works of Watson and Pavlov, he became determined to be a behaviorist. He never wavered from that decision and threw himself wholeheartedly behind radical behaviorism. Elms (1981, 1994) contended that such total dedication to an extreme ideology is quite typical of people faced with an identity crisis.
Although Skhuier had never taken an undergraduate psychology course, Harvard accepted him as a graduate student hi psychology. After he completed his PhD in 1931, Skhuier received a fellowship from the National Research Council to continue Ins laboratory research at Harvard. Now confident of his identity as a behaviorist, he drew up a plan for himself, outlining Ins goals for the next 30 years. The plan also reminded him to adhere closely to behavioristic methodology and not to "surrender to the physiology of the central nervous system" (Skinner, 1979, p. 115). By 1960, Skinner had reached the most important phases of the plan.
When Ins fellowship ended hi 1933, Skinner was faced for the first thne with the chore of hunting for a permanent job. Positions were scarce during tins depression year and prospects looked dhn. But soon Ins worries were alleviated. In the spring of 1933, Harvard created the Society of Fellows, a program designed to promote creative thinking among young intellectually gifted men at the university. Skinner was selected as a Junior Fellow and spent the next 3 years doing more laboratory research.
At the end of his 3-year term as a Junior Fellow, he was agahi in the position of looking for a job. Curiously, he knew ahnost nothing of traditional academic psychology and was not interested hi learning about it. He had a PhD in psychology, 5'/2 years of additional laboratory research, but he was ill prepared to teach within the mainstream of psychology, having "never even read a text in psychology as a whole" (Skinner, 1979, p. 179).
In 1936, Skinner began a teaching and research position at the University of Minnesota, where he remained for 9 years. Soon after moving to Minneapolis and following a short and erratic courtship, he married Yvonne Blue. The Skhuiers had two daughters—Julie, born hi 1938, and Deborah (Debbie), born hi 1944. During Ins Minnesota years, Skhuier published his first book, The Behavior of Organisms (1938), but beyond that, he was involved with two of his most interesting ventures— the pigeon-guided missile and the baby-tender built for his second daughter Debbie. Both projects brought frustration and disappointment, emotions that may have led to a second identity crisis.
Skinner's Project Pigeon was a clever attempt to condition pigeons to make appropriate pecks on keys that would maneuver an explosive missile into an enemy target. Almost 2 years before the United States entered the war, Skhuier purchased a flock of pigeons for the purpose of training them to guide missiles. To work full-thne on Project Pigeon, Skhuier obtained a grant from the University of Minnesota and
©The McGraw-Hill Companies, 2005
436 PartV Learning Theories financial aid from General Mills, the food conglomeration housed in Minneapolis. Unfortunately, he still lacked government support.
In an effort to secure the needed funds, he prepared a film of trained pigeons pecking at the controls of a missile and guiding it toward a moving target. After viewmg the film, government officials rekindled then interest and awarded General Mills a substamtal grant to develop the project. Nevertheless, frustrations lay ahead. In 1944, Skinner dramatically demonstrated to government officials the feasibility of the project by producing a live pigeon that unerringly tracked a moving target. Despite this spectacular demonstration, some observers laughed and most remained skeptical. Finally, after 4 years of work, more than 2 of which were full thne, Skinner was notified that financial help could no longer be continued and the project came to a hah.
Shortly after Skinner abandoned Project Pigeon and immediately before the birth of a second daughter Debbie, he became involved hi another venture—the baby-tender. The baby-tender was essentially an enclosed crib with a large window and a continual supply of fresh warm ah. It provided a physically and psychologically safe and healthy environment for Debbie, one that also freed the parents from unnecessary tedious labor. The Skinners frequently removed Debbie from her crib for play, but for most of the day, she was alone in her baby-tender. After Ladies Home Journal published an article on the baby-tender, Skinner was both condemned and praised for his invention. Interest from other parents persuaded him to market the device. However, difficulties hi securing a patent and his association with an incompetent, unscrupulous business partner led to his abandonment of the commercial venture. When Debbie outgrew the baby-tender at age 2V2 years, Skinner unceremoniously fashioned it into a pigeon cage.
Beyond Biography How did B. F. Skinner solve his identity crises? For more information on Skinner's identity crises and on his failed Project Pigeon, please go to our website at http://www. mhhe. com/feist6
At this pohit in his life, Skinner was 40 years old still dependent on his father for financial help, struggling unsuccessfully to write a book on verbal behavior, and not completely detached from his Dark Year nearly 20 years earlier. Alan Ehns (1981, 1994) believed that the frustrations Skinner experienced over Project Pigeon and the baby-tender led to a second identity crisis, this one at midlife.
Even as Skinner was becoming a successful and well-known behaviorist, he was slow to establish financial independence and in childlike fashion allowed his parents to pay for automobiles, vacations, his children's education in private schools, and a house for his family (Bjork, 1993; Wiener, 1996).
One significant experience occurred while Skinner was still at the University of Minnesota. His father offered to pay him the amount of his summer school salary if he would forego teaching during the summer months and bring his wife and daughter to Scranton. In his autobiography, Skinner (1979, p. 245) questioned his father's motives, saying that he merely "wanted to see more of his adored granddaughter." Nevertheless, Skinner accepted his father's offer, went to Scranton, set up a table in the basement (as far as possible from the attic that was home base during his Dark Year), and began writing. Once again, Scranton proved to be a sterile envi ronment, and the book he was writing remained unfinished until many years later (Skinner, 1957).
In 1945, Skhuier left Minnesota to become chair of the psychology department at Indiana University, a move that added more frustrations. His wife had ambivalent feelings about leaving friends, his administrative duties proved irksome, and he still felt out of the mainstream of scientific psychology. However, his personal crisis was soon to end, and his professional career would take another turn.
In the summer of 1945, while on vacation, Skinner wrote Walden Two, a Utopian novel that portrayed a society in which problems were solved through behavioral engineering. Although not published until 1948, the book provided its author with immediate therapy in the form of an emotional catharsis. At last Skhuier had done what he failed to accomplish dining his Dark Year nearly 20 years earlier. Skinner (1967) admitted that the books two main characters, Farazier and Burris, represented his attempt to reconcile two separate aspects of his own personality. Walden Two was also a benchmark in Skinner's professional career. No longer would he be confined to the laboratory study of rats and pigeons, but thereafter he would be involved with the application of behavioral analysis to the technology of shaping human behavior. His concern with the human condition was elaborated hi Science and Human Behavior (1953) and reached philosophical expression hi Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971).
In 1948, Skhuier returned to Harvard, where he taught mostly hi the College of Education and continued with some small experiments with pigeons. In 1964, at age 60, he retired from teaching but retained faculty status. For the next 10 years, he took two 5-year federal career grants that allowed him to continue to write and to conduct research. He retired as professor of psychology hi 1974 but continued as professor emeritus, with few changes in his workhig conditions. After he retired from teaching in 1964, Skhuier wrote several important books on human behavior that helped him attain the status of America's best-known living psychologist. In addition to Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), he published About Behaviorism (1974), Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978), and Upon Further Reflection (1987a). During tins period, he also wrote a three-volume autobiography, Particulars of My Life (1976a), The Shaping of a Behaviorist (1979), and A Matter of Consequences (1983).
On August 18, 1990, Skhuier died of leukemia. One week before Ins death, he delivered an emotional address to the American Psychological Association (APA) convention hi which he continued his advocacy of radical behaviorism. At this convention, he received an unprecedented Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology, the only person to receive such an award in the history of APA. During his career, Skinner received other honors and awards, including serving as William James Lecturer at Harvard, being granted the 1958 APA Distinguished Scientific Award, and winning the President's Medal of Science.
Was this article helpful?