What we understand by Psychology can be very broad. It is a field of study and intervention in which a large number of theoretical and practical proposals about issues that are not so similar to each other are framed, and which historically has given rise to a large number of theories and proposals about human behaviour .

Biography of B. F. Skinner

However, not all these currents of Psychology have been ascribed to the scientific method with the same force: some seem to be essentially related to philosophy, while others only conceive the study of psychological processes as something approachable from the science .

This second tradition of Psychology owes much of its existence to a researcher named Burrhus Frederic Skinner , in charge of revolutionizing the investigation of human action through his radical behaviorism .

The beginning of your career

B. F. 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 writer , but he gave up his aims when he realised that he did not have an easy time of it. He decided, however, that the study of psychology could provide him with a broader perspective on how the human being is and acts, which is why he began to study this discipline at Harvard.

This renewed enthusiasm did not last long. When he arrived at the university he found an undeveloped psychology very focused on private mental processes, some unconnected ideas about the human mind and very abstract theories about states of consciousness that were more related to philosophy than to the scientific study of behavior.

Towards a scientific psychology: the influence of John Watson

Because it was observable human behavior that B.F. Skinner aspired to understand. Influenced by the behavioral psychologist John B. Watson , he believed in the importance of developing experimental psychology and leaving behind psychoanalysis and theories about the mind based on simple common sense. However, the use of the scientific method was not the norm in the studies in Psychology taught at Harvard.

If he did not give up on his academic and professional career, it was thanks to Fred S. Keller, who in the late 1920s was one of the promising young talents of behaviorism at Harvard. Fred Keller convinced Skinner that it was possible to make psychology a science , and soon after both of them got their doctorates in that discipline. That small meeting, besides making a friendship between the two Freds that would last for decades, made it possible for Frederic Skinner to become one of the most important figures in Scientific Psychology.

Psychology according to B. F. Skinner

Skinner developed his studies within the methods and philosophy of behaviorism, a tradition of young psychology at that time that rejected introspective methods as a way of studying and modifying the mind. This same concept, that of “the mind”, seemed to Skinner to be too confused and abstract to be taken into account, and it is for this reason that he placed his object of study in pure observable behaviour .

The fact of maintaining this approach based purely on empirical evidence is what made neither the methods nor the object of study of psychology studied by this researcher the same as those used by psychoanalysts, who focus on introspection and whose approach to the study of the psyche does not resist the Popperian principle of falsifiability.

In the rivalry established between mentalist psychology and behaviorism, B. F. Skinner bet strongly on the second option in order to make psychology a science of behavior.

The Birth of Radical Behaviorism

Skinner didn’t want psychology to fully embrace the scientific method simply so that his field of study would be better regarded as having the backing of science. This researcher sincerely believed that internal mental processes are not responsible for originating human behavior, but external and measurable factors .

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

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

The term "radical behaviorism", which was coined by Skinner himself, served to put a name to this type of philosophy of the science of behavior . In opposition to methodological behaviourism , radical behaviourism takes to its ultimate consequences the principles of behaviourism that had already been developed by researchers such as John B. Watson or Edward Thorndike. That is why, according to this philosophical position, the concepts that refer to private mental processes (as opposed to observable behaviour) are useless in the field of psychology, although their existence is not denied.

Skinner and operant conditioning

B. F. 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, since initially behaviorism was based on learning by association of stimuli as a method to modify behavior, and classical conditioning allowed establishing relationships between stimuli and responses so that behavior could be predicted and controlled.

For Skinner, however, the classical conditioning was not very representative of the learning potential of the human being , since it could practically only exist in very controlled and artificial environments in which conditioned stimuli could be introduced.

The importance of operative behavior

Contrary to what other behaviorists thought, Burrhus believed that operative behavior, and not responsive behavior, is the most common, universal and versatile class of behavior , which means that when it comes to modulating behavior, the consequences are more important than the stimuli that precede it.

It is the results of the actions that are fundamental, says Skinner, since it is from these that the true usefulness or not of the actions is revealed. A behaviour on the environment is considered operative because it has a series of verifiable consequences , and it is these responses of the environment (including in this category also other living beings) that alter the frequency with which this behaviour or a similar one is reproduced.

Thus, B. F. Skinner basically uses the form of associative learning known as operant conditioning , based on the increase or decrease of certain behaviours depending on whether their consequences are positive or negative, such as giving incentives to children when they perform their tasks.

Skinner’s boxes

Skinner experimented with animal behavior based on the principles of operant conditioning. He used environments where he tried to have total control of all variables in order to cleanly observe what affected the animal’s behavior.

One such artificial environment was the so-called “Skinner’s box”, a kind of rat cage with a lever and a food dispenser . Every time the rat, by chance or deliberately, activated the lever, a piece of food fell next to it, which was a way of encouraging the rodent to repeat the act. In addition, the frequency with which the rat moved the lever was automatically recorded, making it easier to make a statistical analysis of the data obtained.

Skinner’s box served as a means to introduce various variables (including electrical discharges) and see how they affected the frequency with which certain behaviors occurred. These experiments served to describe certain patterns of behaviour based on operant conditioning and to test the possibility of predicting and controlling certain actions of the animals . Today, many spaces used for animal experiments are called Skinner’s 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 he based himself: if it is the environment and the consequences of the acts that model the behaviour, the human being cannot be free. At least, if by freedom we mean indetermination, that is, the ability to act independently of what happens around us.Freedom is, then, nothing more than an illusion far removed from reality, in which each act is originated by triggers beyond the will of a deciding agent.

However, Skinner believed that human beings have the ability to modify their environment to make it determine in the desired way. This persistence is only the other side of the coin of determination: the environment is always affecting us in our behavior, but at the same time everything we do also transforms the environment. Therefore, we can make this loop of causes and effects take on dynamics that benefit us, giving us more possibilities for action and, at the same time, greater well-being.

His denial of free will brought him harsh criticism

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

But this wasn’t the only point of friction between B. F. Skinner and public opinion. This researcher dedicated a great deal of his time to inventing all kinds of gadgets based on the use of operant conditioning and he liked to appear in the big media to show his results or proposals. In one of his spin-offs, for example, Skinner even trained two pigeons to play ping-pong g , and even proposed a system to guide bombs using pigeons that pecked at the moving target that appeared on a screen.

The public has branded Skinner an eccentric scientist

This type of thing led B. F. Skinner to gain an image of an eccentric character , which was not surprising considering the extreme and far from common sense approaches of the time that were germinating in his conception of what radical behaviourism is. Neither did the fact that he invented a kind of cradle with adjustable temperature and humidity, which was accompanied by the myth that Skinner was experimenting with his own daughter of a few months.

For the rest, his opinions on politics and society expressed in his book Walden Two did not match the dominant ideology either, although it is true that Skinner did not miss any opportunity to appear in the media to explain and qualify his proposals and ideas.

The Legacy of B. F. Skinner

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

The legacy he left behind served to consolidate Psychology as a scientific discipline a , and also revealed information about certain learning processes based on association.

Beyond the media aspect of Skinner, it is unquestionable that he became a scientist who took his work very seriously and dedicated much time and thoroughness to generating knowledge backed by empirical evidence. The importance of his legacy has survived the very behaviorism of his time and has come to strongly influence Cognitive Psychology and the emergence of Cognitive-Behavioral Therapies.

Therefore, it is not strange that nowadays, 25 years after his death, B. F. Skinner is one of the most vindicated figures from Scientific Psychology .