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Frederic Skinner’s Views on Behavioral Analysis


The paper discusses B.F. Skinner and his contribution to personality theory. It begins by offering a brief history of Skinner and his academic accomplishments. It highlights how Skinner was able to make contributions that were both profound and practical in the field of applied behavioral analysis. Skinner’s radical behaviorism theory is discussed and his strong opposition to deductive methods articulated. An in-depth analysis of Skinner’s influential work in operant conditioning is offered and here, the paper reveals his strong believe that much could be learned from experiments with animals and the findings from these experiments could be translated to human behavior.

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The paper also reviews some of the social implications of Skinner’s principles. It discusses how these principles have made notable contributions in behavior modification. The impacts of Skinner’s work on individuals with atypical development are also highlighted. The paper also discusses some of the most common criticisms against Skinner’s work. These criticisms are with regard to his overemphasis on observable behavior while ignoring internal processes and his advocacy for social engineering which some regard as support for authoritarian forms of government. The paper concludes by reasserting the significance of Skinner in behavioral psychology.


Personality is one of the major areas of concern for psychologists. In this context, personality is used to explain why people act the way they do by looking at their heredity, experience, and motivation. The four main theories of personality are “trait, psychoanalysis, behavioral, and humanistic views”. B.F. Skinner is a behavior and learning theorist who is well known for emphasizing experience and learning as the primary forces that shape human behavior (Engler, 2008). Skinner’s theory of personality is referred to as radical behaviorism and it proposes that all human behavior is caused by a desire to attain positive reinforcement or avoid punishment. He developed the operant principles to explain personality by demonstrating that behavior results from past learning and current perceptions. Skinner is rightfully regarded as an originator and founder in the field of applied behavior analysis (Morris, Smith, & Deborah, 2005).This paper will engage in an in-depth review of Skinner and his contributions to behavioral analysis. It will begin by offering a brief introduction to the theorist and proceed to discuss his most prominent works on personality.

Brief History of BF Skinner

Burrhus Frederick Skinner was born in 1904 in Pennsylvania and his childhood was spent in a comfortable and stable middle-class family. He graduated from Hamilton College in New York with a Bachelors degree in literature and soon after tried his hand at writing. Inspired by the works of Ivan Pavlov and John Watson, Skinner entered graduate school where he majored in psychology. His ability to invent apparatus for scientific study made him stand out and he earned his Pd.D from Harvard University in 1931. By the time of his death in 1990, Skinner had published many articles and books on behavioral science. “Beyond Freedom and Dignity” which was published in 1971 is his most controversial book and it proposed that technology of behavior could be used to form a utopian society by solving problems. In the book, Skinner argued that free will should not be a factor in governing human behavior since all human behavior can be explained through the principles of operant conditioning.

Skinner made contributions that were both profound and practical in the field of applied behavioral analysis. He was committed to the construction of a theory of behavior that would assist in the scientific understanding of behavior and therefore contribute significantly to experimental psychology (Skinner, 1980). For this reason, he is regarded as one of the most eminent psychologists of the 20th century and his discoveries in the field of transaction of a higher organism with its environment have had an enduring effect on man’s view of himself (Morris, et al. 2005). Skinner recognized that in order to explain behavior, one needed to engage in interdisciplinary studies. For this reason, he collaborated with other scientists in his works. Many scholars agree that Skinner’s work on applied technology led to the field of applied behavior analysis and his work is the foundation of behavior modification.

Skinner and Radical Behaviorism

Skinner maintained that the goal of scientific psychology is to predict and control behavior. Delprato and Midgley (1992) document that Skinner was opposed to deductive methods and he instead obtained empirical data first and then used induction to derive general principles between events. Skinner was curious as to what causes men to behave as they do and he wanted to know if these causes could be discovered, analyzed, and therefore predicted to the extent that one could manipulate them and therefore control behavior (Skinner, 1980). He argued that by focusing on the inner motivation that could not be observed or measured, a deeper understanding of human behavior could not be developed.

Skinner hugely disregarded inner causes of human behaviors and he deemed them as prescientific fallacies that were useless and redundant. He warned against the temptation to attribute the behavior of organism to some inner agent, which cannot be observed. Ewen (2003) documents that to Skinner, inner causes were unscientific since they did not explain anything and raised more questions. For example, the claim that an organism eats because it is hungry still leaves the person with the task of discovering why the organism was feeling hungry in the first place. Skinner did not dismiss the presence of inner emotions such as anger, fear, or anxiety. He contended that these internal emotions were caused by clearly identifiable external stimuli.

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Skinner acknowledged the presence of internal forces within a person and he regarded them as important by-products of behavior. However, he did not use them as causal variables since they could not be defined or their intensity measured. He reprimanded the behavioral scientists who relied on these “inner feelings” since they could be used to justify anything without the need to prove it (Delprato & Midgley, 1992). Skinner therefore concentrated on the variables or forces in the environment that affected the person’s behavior.

The Principle of Operant Conditioning

Skinner’s most influential work was in his operant conditioning principle. He proposed and effectively demonstrated that animal behavior and human behavior was caused by a desire to attain positive reinforcement or avoid punishment. Skinner divided behaviors into two main types: respondent and operant. The respondent behavior is the automatic response to a certain stimuli. These behaviors, such as reflexively pulling a finger away when it touches hot metal, are unlearned and they occur involuntarily. Even so, respondent behaviors can be conditioned or changed through learning as was demonstrated in Pavlov’s classical conditioning (Staddon, 2011). Operant behaviors are actions that take place without a stimulus necessarily being present. As such, the individual freely emits the operant behavior. The behaviors are repeated if the consequences are deemed preferable. In operant conditioning, the reinforcement is preceded by the behavior.

According to Skinner, the human infant is at birth a bundle of innate capacities (Engler, 2008). Behavior is developed through learning with behavior that is accompanied by satisfaction becoming more established. Skinner also introduced the concept of reinforcement where reinforcement is “anything that increases the likelihood of a response” (Engler, 2008, p.219). From this concept, the likelihood of a behavior occurring again is tied to its effect on the individual.

Skinner illustrated his operant conditioning theory by use of laboratory equipment that is commonly referred to as “Skinner box”. This box is used to train animals to act in a certain way to influence their behavior. When the behavior has an effect on the environment, the outcome acts as reinforcement, increasing the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. In Skinner’s experiment, a food-deprived rat was placed within a box which had a lever and allowed to act in a variety of random ways. Over the course of time, the random actions might involve pressing the bar and this will cause a food pellet to drop into the box. As such, the rat’s behavior will have affected the environment and the food will act as reinforcement. The odds of this behavior occurring again will increase and when it occurs again, it is reinforced. The reinforcer is the desirable consequence of an act that therefore increases the changes that the act will recur. Skinner also introduced a procedure termed shaping where the behavior of a subject is deliberately shaped to achieve the desired behavior. Engler (2008) observes that through shaping, Skinner was able to influence animals to perform unique and remarkable feats. Skinner used public demonstrations of behavioral engineering to demonstrate the effectiveness of positive reinforcement.

Skinner theorized that human behavior is learned through operant conditioning. He proposed that language is learned through reinforcing and shaping of operant behavior. At the onset, the young infant emits spontaneous sounds that are “not limited to the sounds of its native tongue but represent all possible languages” (Engler, 2008, p.221). In the early stages, the infant receives reinforcement through smiles and laughter for simply babbling. Later on, the child is reinforced for making sounds that closely resemble meaningful words. Finally, the child receives reinforcement for making meaningful speech.

Societal Impacts of Skinner’s Work

Skinner made some notable contributions to behavior modification. According to him, the role of therapy is to identify the behaviors that are maladaptive and proceed to remove them. These behaviors could then be replaced with more appropriate ones through operant conditioning. Skinner stressed on the fact that self-understanding was not a prerequisite to successful therapy and a past review of the individuals past was not necessary. He proposed that behaviorist principles should be the basis of psychotherapy and not unobservable and abstract inner processes. Skinner’s approach to behavior modification has been used to complement traditional therapy or as an alternative where traditional therapy has failed.

Skinner made some radical and controversial assertions from his theory. He declared that all behavior is determined by prior conditioning and actions are therefore not the result of some plan but rather, they occur because responses have been previously reinforced. He proclaimed that “instead of saying that a man behaves because of the consequences which are to follow his behavior, simply say that he behaves because of the consequences which have followed similar behavior in the past” (Skinner, 1980, p.45).

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Skinner’s theories have had profound impacts in many faucets of societal life. Morris, et al. (2005) observes that Skinner’s findings have influenced the manner in which parents raise their children. Skinner’s principles can be used to extinguish undesirable behavior in children through differential reinforcement of other behavior. Through positive reinforcement, children can be induced to engage in socially desirable behavior. Gewirtz and Martha (1992) commend Skinner for making a great contribution in the advancement of our understanding of basic psychological processes. Specifically, operant learning has been used in the study of infant perception and learning and this has helped to improve the parent-infant interaction.

Individuals with atypical development have also benefited from Skinner’s work. His principles have been used to help children with autism learn. Through discrete-trial behavior interventions, children with autism are “encouraged” to adopt socially acceptable behavior and this behavior is then reinforced which increases its likelihood of occurring in future (Morris, et al., 2005). Other personality disorders can also be controlled by use of Skinner’s principles. The principle of operant conditioning has also been used to help children with phobic and anxiety disorders with significant success (Ollendick & King, 1998). Skinner’s account of verbal behavior has been used to teach children with severe language deficits and there is a growing trend of using the concepts in VB in language programs for such individuals (Schlinger, 2010).

Skinner’s behavior analysis approaches were also applied to psychiatric patients whose problems were of clear social importance. It was demonstrated that by use of token reinforcement system, operant repertoires that were incompatible with behavioral excesses could be established. Such operant repertoires could be used to help children and adults with mental retardation, and even patients suffering from schizophrenia.

Skinner also contributed to the field of education by commenting on the educational practices of his days. He proposed the use of programmed instructions to increase the effectiveness of teaching efforts (Morris, 2003). He developed a learning machine that made use of reinforcement to increasing learning effectiveness in language and arithmetic.

Criticism of Skinner’s Theory

Skinner’s overemphasis on observable behavior ignores the influence that internal processes which are not directly observable play in the life of an individual. Wagenaar (1975) notes that Skinner is opposed to the classical view of behavior where priority is given to internal motivation and instead gives preference to external empirical causes. This provides an incomplete picture of the various factors that guide human behavior. Siegel (1996) suggests that Skinner was obsessed with externalities and even in his autobiography; he maintained a dispassionate style much in line with his behaviorist position that deemed personality irrelevant.

Skinner is also accused of supporting authoritarianism through his advocacy of social engineering. In his Book “Walden Two”, Skinner advocated that the international community should take an empirical approach to discovering and reinforcing cultural practices that worked through positive reinforcement (Morris et al., 2005).

A major criticism leveled against Skinner is that he discounted the presence of free will since all actions were determined by the contingencies of reinforcement. Such an outlook can be used to defend any human action since the individual can blame external factors for his/her actions. This therefore removes accountability which is an integral component in any functional society. Wagenaar (1975) defends Skinner by asserting that he believed that the person was in control of his behavior and destiny.

Discussion and Conclusion

While Skinner’s theory’s have been criticized for placing too much emphasis on operant behaviors shaped by external stimuli while ignoring important cognitive contributors to social learning, many developmentalists agree that human behaviors are varied and habits can emerge or disappear depending on whether they have positive or negative consequences. True to his commitment to deliver a theory of human behavior that was not only plausible but also scientifically productive, Skinner was able to come up with applications that were practical. By using insightful examples from everyday life, Skinner was able to make a case for behavior analysis and elicit the interest of many people from many disciplines.

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This paper set out to discuss arguably the most influential psychologist of the 20th century, B.F. Skinner and his theory of personality. It began by providing a brief history of Skinner and traced his contribution to psychology through his career. The paper has noted the contributions that Skinner made to behavioral sciences and the affects they had on society. However, Skinner’s work did not gain unanimous acceptance and some criticism was leveled to his work. Particularly, his disregard for internal processes was seen as a profound weakness in his work. His assertions that external factors were the only contributors to human actions were also criticized as being inadequate. Even so, Skinner’s work is mostly viewed positively and his personality theory continues to be an applicable and a great influence to scholars to date.


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Ewen, R. (2003). An Introduction to Theories of Personality. NY: Routledge.

Gewirtz, J.L. & Martha, P. (1992). B. F Skinner’s legacy to human infant behavior and development. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1411-1422.

Ollendick, T. H., & King, N. J. (1998). Empirically supported treatments for children with phobic and anxiety disorders. Journal of Clinical and Child Psychology, 27, 156-167.

Morris, E. K. (2003). B. E Skinner: A behavior analyst in educational psychology. In B. J. Zimmerman & D. H. Schunk (Eds.), Educational psychology: A century of contributors (pp. 229-250). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.

Morris, K.E., Smith, N. & Deborah. E. (2005). B. R Skinner’s contributions to applied behavior analysis. The Behavior Analyst, 28(2), 99-131.

Schlinger, H.D. (2010). The impact of Skinner’s verbal behavior: a response to Dymond and Alonso-Álvarez. The Psychological Record, 60(1), 361-368.

Siegel, P.F. (1996). The meaning of behaviorism for B. F. Skinner. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 13(3), 343-365.

Skinner, B.F. (1980). Selections from Science and Human Behavior. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Staddon, J. E. R. (2001). The new behaviourism: Mind, mechanism, and society. Philadelphia, PA: Psychology Press.

Wagenaar, J. (1975). B.F. Skinner on human nature, culture, and religion. Journal of Religion and Science, 10(2), 128-143.

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