BF Skinner: Life and Work of a Radical Behaviorist

What we mean by psychology it can get very wide. It is a field of study and intervention in which a large number of theoretical and practical propositions are formulated on questions which are not so close to each other, and which has historically given rise to a large number of the theories I proposals on the human behavior.

Biography of BF Skinner

However, all these currents of psychology have not attributed to the scientific method with the same force: some seem to be essentially linked to philosophy, while others conceive of the study of psychological processes only as something of science.

This second tradition of psychology owes much of its existence to a so-called researcher Burrhus Frederic Skinner, In charge of revolutionize the investigation of human action through its radical behavioralism.

The beginning of his career

BF Skinner was born in March 1904 in a small town in Pennsylvania, United States. Encouraged by the creative possibilities of prose, during his youth he set out to create a career as a writerBut he abandoned his designs when he realized that he had no facility for it. He decided, however, that studying psychology could provide him with a broader perspective on what it looks like and how human beings act, so he began studying the discipline at Harvard.

This renewed enthusiasm did not last long. Upon arriving at college, he encountered an underdeveloped psychology very focused on private mental processes, unrelated ideas about the human mind, and very abstract theories of states of consciousness that were more related to philosophy. than to study.

Towards a scientific psychology: the influence of John Watson

Because it was observable human behavior that BF Skinner aspired to understand. Influenced by the behavioral psychologist John B. WatsonHe believed in the importance of developing experimental psychology and leaving behind psychoanalysis and theories of the mind based on common sense. However, the use of the scientific method was unusual in the psychology studies taught at Harvard.

If she did not give up her academic and professional career, it was thanks to Fred S. Keller, who in the late 1920s was one of the young promises of behavioralism at Harvard. Fred Keller convinced Skinner that it was possible to make psychology a science, And soon after, the two obtained their doctorates in this discipline. This little meeting, in addition to consolidating a friendship between the two colds that will last for decades, allowed Frédéric Skinner to become one of the most important figures in scientific psychology.

Psychology according to BF Skinner

Skinner developed his studies in the methods and philosophy of behaviorism, a tradition in young psychology at the time that rejected introspective methods as a means of studying and modifying the mind. This same concept, that of “the mind,” seemed to Skinner too confusing and abstract to consider, and it is this is why he placed his object of study in a pure observable behavior.

Maintaining this approach based solely on the empirical evidence This is why neither the methods nor the object of study of psychology studied by this researcher were the same as those of psychoanalysts, focused on introspection and the approach to the study of the psyche. not resist the Popperian principle of falsifiability.

In the established rivalry between mentalistic psychology and behaviorism, BF Skinner was firmly committed to the second option of making psychology a science of behavior.

The birth of radical behaviorism

Skinner did not want psychology to fully embrace the scientific method just so that his field of study would be better regarded with the endorsement of science. this researcher he sincerely believed that internal mental processes are not responsible for the origin of human behavior, but external and measurable factors..

BF Skinner believed, in short, that the propositions and hypotheses of psychology should be tested exclusively through objective evidence, And not by abstract speculation. This theoretical principle was shared by behavioral psychologists in general, but BF Skinner differed from many of them in one fundamental aspect.

While some early 20th-century researchers were attached to the behavioral stream took behavior as an indicator of methodological objectivity to create explanatory models of human psychology that included certain non-physical variables, Skinner believed that the behavior itself was in itself the beginning and the end. of what needs to be studied in psychology. This way, rejected the inclusion of non-physical variables in the research of what psychology should be for him.

The term “radical behaviorism”, coined by Skinner himself, it was used to name this kind of behavioral science philosophy. In opposition to methodological behaviorism, radical behaviorism carries the principles of behaviorism which had already been developed by researchers such as John B. Watson and Edward Thorndike. This is why, according to this philosophical posture, concepts which refer to private mental processes (as opposed to observable behavior) are useless in the field of psychology, although their existence is not denied.

Skinner and operant conditioning

BF Skinner is, of course, one of the greatest referents of behaviorism, but he was not a pioneer of this psychological approach. Before him, Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson had described the foundations of classical conditioning in animals and humans respectively. This is important because initially behaviorism was based on learning through associations of stimuli as a method of modifying behavior, and classical conditioning made it possible to establish relationships between stimuli and responses so that behavior could be predicted and predicted. control.

For Skinner, however, classical conditioning was not representative of human learning potentialSince it could practically only exist in highly controlled and artificial environments into which conditioned stimuli could be introduced.

The importance of operating behavior

Contrary to what other behaviorists thought, Burrhus believed that this was functioning behavior, not response behavior, the most common, universal, and versatile class of behaviorThis means that when it comes to modulating behavior, the consequences matter more than the stimuli that precede it.

It is the results of actions that are fundamental, says Skinner, because it is from these that the true usefulness of actions is revealed. Behavior on the environment is considered operational because it involves a series of verifiable consequencesAnd it is these responses from the environment (including in this category also to other living things) that alter the frequency with which this behavior or similar behavior recurs.

Thus, BF Skinner essentially uses the form of associative learning known as operant conditioning, based on the increase or decrease of certain behaviors depending on whether their consequences are positive or negative, such as incitement to children in the performance of their duties.

Skinner boxes

Skinner experimented with animal behavior based on the principles of operant conditioning. For this, he used environments in which he tried to have full control over all the variables so that he could clearly observe what was affecting the animal’s behavior.

One of these types of man-made environment was the so-called “Skinner’s box”. a sort of rat cage that had a lever and a feeder. Whenever the rat, by chance or on purpose, pulled the lever, a piece of food fell next to it, which was a way of getting the rodent to repeat the act. In addition, the frequency with which the rat moved the lever was recorded automatically, which facilitated statistical analysis of the data obtained.

Skinner’s box was used as a way to introduce various variables (including electric shocks) and see how they affected how often certain behaviors occurred. these experiences they were used to describe certain models of behavior based on operant conditioning and to test the possibility of predicting and controlling certain actions of animals.. Today, many spaces used for experimenting with animals are called Skinner boxes.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, the great polemicist

One of the consequences of professing radical behaviorism is having to deny the existence of free will. In the book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner clearly expressed in writing this logical consequence of the philosophical principles on which it was based: If it is the environment and the consequences of acts that shape behavior, humans cannot be free. At least, if we mean by freedom indeterminacy, that is, the ability to act independently of what is happening around us. Freedom is therefore nothing more than an illusion far removed from reality, in which each act is born from triggers foreign to the will of a deciding agent.

Of course, Skinner believed that human beings have the ability to alter their environment to make it determined in any way they want. This perspective is just the other side of the coin of determination: the environment always affects us in our behavior, but at the same time everything we do also transforms the environment. Therefore, we can ensure that this loop of causes and effects creates dynamics that are beneficial to us, giving us more possibilities for action and, at the same time, greater well-being.

His denial of free will involved severe criticism

This philosophical position, relatively normal today in the scientific community, is doing very badly in an American society in which the principles and values ​​of liberalism were (and are) strongly rooted.

But that was not the only point of friction between BF Skinner and public opinion. This researcher spent a large part of his time inventing all kinds of artifacts based on the use of operant conditioning and liked to appear in mainstream media to show his results or his proposals. In one of his coups, for example, Skinner went so far as to train two pigeons to play pin-pong, And even went so far as to propose a bomb guidance system using pigeons that peck at the moving target appearing on a screen.

Public opinion has called Skinner an eccentric scientist

This sort of thing allowed BF Skinner to get a picture of eccentric characterThis was not surprising given the extreme approaches far removed from the common sense of the time that germinated in his conception of radical behaviorism. Nor was inventing some sort of adjustable temperature and humidity cradle, which was accompanied by the myth that Skinner lived with his own daughter of a few months.

For the rest, his views on politics and society have spilled over into his book Walden Dos Did Not Align With Mainstream Ideology, although it is true that Skinner did not miss any opportunity to appear in the media to explain and qualify their proposals and ideas.

The legacy of BF Skinner

Skinner died of leukemia in August 1990, and he worked until the very week of his death.

The legacy he left behind served to consolidate psychology as a scientific disciplinea, And also revealed information about some learning processes based on associations.

Beyond Skinner’s media facet, it is indisputable that he became a scientist who took his work very seriously and spent a great deal of time and thoroughness in generating supporting knowledge about empirical verification. The importance of his legacy outlived the behaviorism of his time and came to strongly influence cognitive psychology and the emergence of cognitive-behavioral therapies.

It is therefore not surprising that at present, 25 years after his death, BF Skinner is one of the most confirmed figures in scientific psychology.

Leave a Comment