Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Susquehanna, Susquehanna County
B.F. Skinner, world-renowned psychologist and author of Walden Two, was born in Susquehanna in 1904.
Born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, B.F. Skinner was a youth interested in observing the world. After graduating from Hamilton College, Skinner matriculated at Harvard University for graduate psychology study. He was a pioneer of behaviorism, studying operant conditioning and schedules of reinforcement. Combining his skills as psychologist and inventor, Skinner invented the baby tender and the Skinner box. He was publicly known for his texts Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, receiving numerous national awards and honorary degrees. Respected as one of the century’s most influential psychologists, B.F. Skinner died of leukemia on August 18, 1990.
B.F. Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. His father, William, was a local attorney; his mother, Grace, stopped working as a typist after marriage and became a housewife. In 1906, two and half years after Frederic’s birth, his younger brother, Edward James (Ebbie), was born. Growing up in Susquehanna, a railroad town with a population around 2,000, the two boys entertained themselves by building things of improvised materials, including a failed system for getting oxygen out of sea water, a shack in the woods, and a cart with an opposite-direction steering wheel. These construction skills would enable an older Skinner to build the apparatus invented for his psychology research. When he was nine years old, Skinner joined the Junior Boy Scouts in Susquehanna, where he experienced weeks of outdoor camping and adolescent independence. The young Skinner also experimented with writing novels and short stories—even a morality play featuring the characters Greed and Youth.
Fred Skinner, as his family referred to him, enjoyed his education at Susquehanna High School. In particular, Skinner credited Miss Mary Graves, his high school English teacher, with instilling in him a sense of intellectual independence and curiosity. After a debate on the authorship of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Skinner developed an interest in Sir Francis Bacon and the inductive method in science, which would frame his own later experiments. However, despite these intellectual interests, the small-town limitations of the Susquehanna community presented obstacles to future stimulation. Eager to get away from the town where he had spent all his life, Fred Skinner applied to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. When his family relocated to Scranton, Pennsylvania, Skinner took the three hour train ride to Clinton.
Because of Hamilton’s rigid regulations and his inability to appear sophisticated, Fred Skinner’s first year of college resulted in disillusionment and social isolation. Uninspired by the compulsory physical education and mandatory fraternity pledge, Skinner matured into a detached individual, able to view himself as another person. This detachment allowed a composed response when tragedy struck the Skinner family in 1923. While home in Scranton for spring break, Skinner, his brother Ebbie, and a friend went out for ice cream sundaes. After complaining of a headache, Ebbie called for a doctor and fainted. Skinner rushed to church to get his parents, but their return home was too late. Ebbie died from a cerebral hemorrhage at the age of 16. Fred Skinner was able emotionally to accept the death of his brother, although he remained uncomfortable with the new attention he received as an only child.
Nonetheless, Fred Skinner returned to Hamilton College to finish his education. He wrote editorial articles for the college newspaper, Hamilton Life; his contributions included pieces that were critical of Hamilton College, the faculty, and his local fraternity, Beta Kappa. Throughout college, Skinner focused on the reading and writing of literature, spending a summer at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont. After graduating as salutatorian with a Bachelor of Arts in English, Skinner’s literary pursuits culminated in his plan for after graduation—a year of living with his parents in Scranton to write a novel. Although he built a writer’s workshop in his parents’ attic, Skinner’s “Dark Year” of eighteen months proved unfruitful. As Skinner admits in Particulars of My Life, “I was easily distracted from my life as a writer. Anything that yielded quicker and more substantial rewards took possession of me.” Leaving home for New York City, he worked as a bookstore clerk where he discovered behavioral science in Pavlov’s Conditioned Reflexes and Watson’s Behaviorism. Inspired by these books, Fred Skinner decided to exchange literature for of psychology; he enrolled in the Psychology Department of Harvard University in 1928.
During his graduate education at Harvard, Skinner focused on what he termed in About Behaviorism as “radical behaviorism,” a discipline within psychology that regards everything an organism does as behaviors that can be scientifically observed and manipulated. Success came through his combination of talents as inventor and observer by creating technologies to control an experiment. In B.F. Skinner: A Life, biographer Daniel W. Bjork suggests that Skinner “was not so much experimenting to achieve desirable results as devising apparatus that allowed orderly results to be observed.” His graduate study involved tests examining the behavior of rats, particularly in response to food given at a certain rate. Needing a particular measurement device, Skinner invented the cumulative recorder, a mechanism that recorded responses as points slanted up from the horizontal. The data represented a curve, showing both the number of responses and the rate of response. Building off of this technology, Skinner constructed a new apparatus to deliver food when a lever was pressed—the first Skinner box. With these new tools, he began to develop his theory of behavior, although it would not completely manifest until several years after leaving Harvard.
Skinner received his master’s degree in psychology in 1930 and his doctorate a year later in 1931. During his last fellowship-funded research year at Harvard, Fred Skinner met Yvonne (Eve) Blue. A summer of romance between the two led to an engagement. As Skinner left Harvard University for a position at the University of Minnesota, Yvonne relocated with him to Minneapolis. The two married on November 1, 1937.
While at the University of Minnesota, B.F. Skinner published his first text, The Behavior of Organisms, in 1938. This book introduced Skinner’s newly-defined disciple within behaviorism—the study of operant behavior. When an organism is living as it normally would, it is “operating” on the environment. After it receives a particular “reinforcement” stimulus, the organism’s tendency to increase the operant, the behavior before the reinforcement, will increase. Unlike Pavlov’s work that related a reflex (a dog salivating) to a preceding stimulus (the ringing of a bell), Skinner proposed operant conditioning, in which a later consequence, rather than a prior stimulus, conditioned a behavior. In the Skinner box, a rat was operantly conditioned to press a lever by receiving food pellet reinforcement after number of lever presses. By chance, when a low supply of food pellets required him to reduce the number of reinforcements, Skinner discovered “schedules of reinforcement.”
There are four schedules of reinforcement that manipulate continuous reinforcement, a pellet for every push of the lever. Skinner began his experiments with a fixed ratio schedule: for every X number of lever pushes, the rat received a pellet. Similar to the fixed ratio is the fixed interval schedule: if the rat pushes the lever at least once every X seconds, it receives a pellet. Fixed intervals often lead to “pacing” rhythms, where the rat develops a rhythm for when the reinforcement will arrive. To experiment with these fixed schedules, Skinner considered both variable ratio (the threshold of lever pushes constantly changes) and variable interval (the time between reinforcements constantly changes) schedules. The variable schedules did not allow for pacing; instead, the rat persistently pressed the lever, never knowing when the next food pellet would appear. As Michael B. Walker relates in his article, “Science and Gambling: Psychological Perspectives,” “according to Skinner, gambling is an excellent example of a human operant response conditioned by a variable ratio reinforcement schedule.” However, despite these similarities, rats pressing a lever do not face the same negative punishment—the loss of one’s savings—as a gambler. Skinner and co-research C.B. Ferster detailed these new operant conditioning developments in Schedules of Reinforcement (1957).
While working at the University of Minnesota in the midst of World War II, Skinner began researching an idea that birds could be trained as navigators. After a government-funded grant, the research grew into Project Pigeon, a top-secret program for basic missile guidance. To create a homing device, Skinner operantly conditioned several pigeons stowed within a missile to peck at an image projected from a lens at the front of the missile. The constant pecks, reinforced by grain pellets, would accurately guide a missile to its destination. Although Project Pigeon had remarkably successful results, this program was cut due to the success of another government project—radar. The experience was not a total loss for Skinner, however; he abandoned experimenting with simple white rats in favor of the more complex pigeons.
In 1938, Fred and Yvonne Skinner had their first child, Julie. Their second daughter, Deborah would be born in 1944. Already burdened by raising one child, Yvonne was eager for her husband to simplify baby car. In his article “The First Baby Tender,” Fred Skinner explains that his simple invention, the baby tender (also known as an air crib), provided everything an infant needed: “All that was needed during the early months was a clean, comfortable, warm, and safe place for the baby, and that was the point of the baby tender.” For two and a half year, baby Deborah slept within the baby tender, a “thermostatically controlled, enclosed crib with a safety-glass front and a stretched-canvas floor,” as Bjork describes in his biography. Despite the obvious differences, confusion developed between the baby tender and the Skinner box. This “baby in a box” image prevented the baby tender from becoming a household commodity.
Undaunted by the public failures of Project Pigeon and the baby tender, Fred Skinner reinvested himself in academic pursuits. After a half-decade in Minneapolis, the Skinner family moved to Bloomington, Indiana, where Skinner became Chair of the Psychology Department at Indiana University in 1945. Two and a half years later, in 1948, Skinner was invited back to Harvard University as a member of the faculty. Later that year, Fred Skinner published a utopian novel, Walden Two. Like Henry David Thoreau’s Walden, Skinner’s novel shares with its predecessor the theme of living simply and peacefully. The fictional utopia achieves harmony as its founder, Frazier, extrapolates operant conditioning through designing an isolated community of one thousand, named Walden Two.
Despite favorable criticism upon its publication, sales of Walden Two remained slow until the 1960s, when various groups—at one point including Skinner—attempted to create an actual Walden Two. In a Harper’s Magazine review during this belated attention, Spencer Klaw compliments Skinner’s Walden Two writing as “a prose style that is lively, muscular, free from jargon, and altogether excellent.” This simplicity mirrors that of the novel’s thesis. However, Klaw suggests that an actual Walden Two, based on the guidelines dictated in Skinner’s novel, would fail to entertain the mind or passions of the average person: “It is possible for a good man to design a bad culture, and Skinner and his fictional surrogate, Frazier, offer a case in point…[T]he productive, content people who would make up Skinner’s new society would be about as exciting as so many bowls of junket.”
After the publication of the fictional utopia in Walden Two, Skinner discovered an “academic” utopia at Harvard University. As Daniel N. Wiener writes in B.F. Skinner: Benign Anarchist, Harvard “provided the spaciousness for almost anything Skinner wanted to do for the rest of his life, lasting for 42 years after his arrival.” He would remain at Harvard for the rest of his life. Directing dozens of doctoral candidates Skinner remained an active writer and researcher at the university, publishing theoretical manuscripts, scientific research results, and a three volume autobiography. Highlights of his later texts include Verbal Behavior (1957), an interpretation of how operant conditioning could explain the evolution of language and The Technology of Teaching (1968), a suggestion to revolutionize the model of American education using programmed instruction and teaching machines. Skinner’s greatest recognition arrived with the publication of Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), an argument that the ideas of free will and the autonomous individual impede the potential progress of culture. Instead, the text suggests that behavior modification through cultural engineering will lead to a happier and more humane society. One example of an operantly conditioned culture is the fictional utopia in Skinner’s Walden Two.
With the publicity from Beyond Freedom and Dignity, B.F. Skinner became a prominent figure of public interest. Skinner’s portrait was featured on the September 20, 1971, issue of Time magazine, along with the caption, “B.F. Skinner says: We Can’t Afford Freedom.” The feature article, “Skinner’s Utopia: Panacea, or Path to Hell?” presented a brief biography highlighted by the cultural controversy of his latest book. After the magazine circulated, numerous television talk shows requested Skinner’s appearance, including The Today Show and The Dick Cavett Show. Certain intellectual critics, like Noam Chomsky, a linguist and professor at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, attacked Beyond Freedom and Dignity for its unsupported scientific assumptions about behavior modification. With his review in The New York Review of Books, Chomsky disapproves of both Skinner’s vocabulary and pseudoscience: “Skinner is saying nothing about freedom and dignity, though he uses the words “freedom” and “dignity” in several odd and idiosyncratic senses. His speculations are devoid of scientific content and do not even hint at general outlines of a possible science of human behavior.” Even with such a harsh critique, Beyond Freedom and Dignity became one of Skinner’s bestselling works.
For his contributions to psychology, Skinner received several public awards. In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded him the National Medal of Science for “basic and imaginative contributions to the study of behavior which have had profound influence upon all of psychology and many related areas.” Three years later, Skinner received the Gold Medal Award from the American Psychological Association (APA) in 1971. The next year, the American Humanist Association presented him with the 1972 Humanist of the Year Award. Over his career, various universities awarded honorary degrees to Skinner, including his alma mater, Hamilton College, University of Chicago, University of Exeter, McGill University, Ohio Wesleyan University, Tufts University, and Western Michigan University. In Steven J. Haggbloom’s article, “The 100 Most Eminent Psychologists of the 20th Century,” B.F. Skinner tops the list of psychologists. The rankings, compiled through a combination of quantitative and qualitative research, put Skinner ahead of other influential figures like Sigmund Freud and Jean Piaget.
At the age of 70, Fred Skinner retired from Harvard University but continued to work in his usual schedule, a routine supported by his own reinforcement schedule. However, the deterioration of his physical health with old age began to affect his lifestyle. He experienced vision loss, developing glaucoma in his right eye. In November, 1989, doctors diagnosed him with leukemia. Almost a year after the diagnosis, Fred Skinner appeared in front of his colleagues and critics one last time on August 10, 1990, to receive the first APA Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contributions to Psychology. Eight days later, on August 18, 1990, B.F. Skinner died in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century, 1938.
Walden Two. New York: Macmillan Co., 1948.
Schedules of Reinforcement. (with C.B. Ferster). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.
Verbal Behavior: New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1957.
The Technology of Teaching: New York, Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1968.
Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf, 1971.
About Behaviorism. New York: Knopf, 1974.
“Two Types of Conditioned Reflex and a Pseudo Type.” Journal of General Psychology 12 (1935): 66–77.
“The First Baby Tender.” Behaviorology Today 7:1 (2004): 3–4.
Particulars of My Life. New York: Knopf, 1976.
The Shaping of a Behaviorist: Part Two of an Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1979.
A Matter of Consequences: Part Three of an Autobiography. New York: Knopf, 1983.
“American Psychological Foundation Gold Medal Award.” American Psychologist. 27:1 (1972): 71–75.
Bjork, Daniel W. B.F. Skinner: A Life. New York: Basic Books, 1993.