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B.F. SKINNER, works and life

SKINNER early years

Fred standing & Eddie Skinner
Eddied died at home at the age of 16 from a ceberal hemorrhage

From http://ww2.lafayette.edu/~allanr/early.html

{#1 of 4 chapters}



This brief autobiography was written for E.G. Boring and G. Lindzey's A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 5) (New York: Appleton Century-Crofts, 1967, pp. 387-413) and has been republished in P.B. Dews's Festscbrift for B.F. Skinner (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1970, pp. 1-21). Since about 1973, Skinner has been at work on a more comprehensive autobiography, two volumes of which are no longer in print -- Particulars of My Life (1976), which covers the period before he entered graduate school, and The Shaping of a Behaviorist (1979), which covers Skinner's early professional life until he became a professor at Harvard in 1948. (This paragraph was part of the editor's note in Skinner for the Classroom: Selected Papers. Edited by Robert Epstein [1982], Research Press.

The third volume, A Matter of Consequences (1983) is also out of print. The foundation plans to reprint these volumes in the near future. An authoritative biography of Skinner is, B.F. Skinner, A Life, by Daniel W. Bjork, 1993, Basic Books. Also a fine set of reflections on Skinner's research influence is, B.F. Skinner, A Reappraisal, by Marc N. Richelle, (1993), Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. There are a few book-length works that may be of interest: B.F Skinner: The Man and His Ideas by Richard I. Evans (New York: Dutton, 1968), an extensive interview with Skinner; What Is B. F Skinner Really Saying, by Robert D. Nye (Englewood Cliffs, NJ.: Prentice-Hall, 1979), a readable exposition of Skinner's psychology; The Skinner Primer: Behind Freedom and Dignity, by Finley Carpenter, (1974), Free Press, an unsympathetic commentary on Beyond Freedom and Dignity; and B.F Skinner by John A. Weigel (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1977), a brief biography.

This chapter originally appeared in E.G. Boring and G. Lindzey (Eds.), A History of Psychology in Autobiography (Vol. 5). New York: Irvington Publishers Inc., 1967, pp. 387-413. Reprinted by permission of the publisher.


(1904 - 1922)

My Grandmother Skinner was an uneducated farmer's daughter who put on airs. She was naturally attracted to a young Englishman who came to America in the early 1870s looking for work, and she married him. (He had not found just the work he wanted when he died at the age of 90.) My grandmother's aspirations were passed on to her son, William, who "read law" while apprenticed as a draftsman in the Erie Railroad shops in Susquehanna, a small town in northeastern Pennsylvania. He went on to a law school in New York City and passed his bar examination in Susquehanna County before getting a degree. He suffered from his mother's ambitions all his life. He was desperately hungry for praise, and many people thought him conceited; but he secretly -- and bitterly -- considered himself a failure, even though he eventually wrote a standard text on workmen's compensation law which was in its fourth edition when he died.

My mother, Grace Burrhus, was bright and beautiful. She had rigid standards of what was "right," and they never changed. Her loyalties were legendary. At eleven she began to correspond with a friend who had moved away, and they wrote to each other in alternate weeks, without missing a week, for 70 years. Her father was born in New York State. He lied about his age to enlist as a drummer boy in the last year of the Civil War. After the war he came to Susquehanna looking for work as a carpenter, and eventually he became foreman of the Erie carpenter shops there. My Grandmother Burrhus had the only claim to quality in the family: An ancestor, a Captain Potter, had fought under Washington.

My home environment was warm and stable. I lived in the house I was born in until I went to college. My father, mother, and I all graduated from the same high school. I saw a great deal of my grandparents. I had a brother two and a half years younger than I. As a child I was fond of him. I remember being ridiculed for calling him "honey," a term my mother used for both of us at home. As he grew older he proved to be much better at sports and more popular than I, and he teased me for my literary and artistic interests. When he died suddenly of a cerebral aneurysm at the age of 16, 1 was not much moved. I probably felt guilty because I was not. I had once made an arrowhead from the top of a tin can, and when I made a test shot straight up into the air, the arrow fell back and struck my brother in the shoulder, drawing blood. I recalled the event with a shock many years later when I heard Laurence Olivier speaking Hamlet's lines:

Let my disclaiming from a purpos'd evil

Free me so far in your most generous thought,

That I have shot mine arrow o'er the house,

And hurt my brother.

Susquehanna is now half deserted, and it was even then a rather dirty railroad town, but it is situated in a beautiful river valley. I roamed the hills for miles around. I picked arbutus and dogwood in early spring, chewed sassafras root and wintergreen berries and the underbark of slippery elm, killed rattlesnakes, and found flint arrowheads. With another boy I built a shack in the hills alongside a creek, and I learned to swim in the pool we made by blocking the creek with a sod-and-stone dam, sharing the pool with a poisonous watersnake. Four other boys and I once went 300 miles down the Susquehanna River in a fleet of three canoes. I was 15 at the time and the oldest in the party.


I was always building things. I built roller-skate scooters, steerable wagons, sleds, and rafts to be poled about on shallow ponds. I made seesaws, merry-go-rounds, and slides. I made slingshots, bows and arrows, blow guns and water pistols from lengths of bamboo, and from a discarded water boiler a steam cannon with which I could shoot plugs of potato and carrot over the houses of our neighbors. I made tops, diabolos, model airplanes driven by twisted rubber bands, box kites, and tin propellers which could be sent high into the air with a spool-and-string spinner. I tried again and again to make a glider in which I myself might fly.


I invented things, some of them in the spirit of the outrageous contraptions in the cartoons which Rube Goldberg was publishing in the Philadelphia Inquirer (to which, as a good Republican, my father subscribed). For example, a friend and I used to gather elderberries and sell them from door to door, and I built a flotation system which separated ripe from green berries. I worked for years on the design of a perpetual motion machine. (It did not work.)

I went through all 12 grades of school in a single building, and there were only eight students in my class when I graduated. I liked school. It was the custom for students to congregate outside the building until a bell rang and the doors were opened. I was a constant problem for the janitor, because I would arrive early and ask to be let in. He had been told to keep me out, but he would shrug, open the door just enough to let me through, and lock it after me. As I see it now, the school was good. I had 4 strong years of high school mathematics using no-nonsense texts by Wentworth. In my senior year I could read a bit of Virgil well enough to feel that I was getting the meaning in Latin. Science was weak, but I was always doing physical and chemical experiments at home.


My father was a sucker for book salesmen ("We are contacting a few of the town's more substantial citizens"), and as a result we had a fairly large library consisting mostly of sets -- The World's Great Literature, Masterpieces of World History, Gems of Humor, and so on. Half a dozen small volumes on applied psychology, published by an "institute," were beautifully bound, with white spines and embossed seals on blue covers. I remember only one sample: It was said that an advertisement for chocolates showing a man shoveling cocoa beans into a large roasting oven was bad psychology.

A schoolteacher named Mary Graves was an important figure in my life. Her father was the village atheist and an amateur botanist who believed in evolution. Miss Graves once showed me a letter he had received from the Prince of Monaco offering to exchange specimens of pressed plants. Miss Graves was a dedicated person with cultural interests far beyond the level of the town. She organized the Monday Club, a literary society to which my mother belonged. The club would spend a winter reading Ibsen's Doll's House. Miss Graves did her best to bring the little town library up to date. When I was in high school, she once whispered to me in a conspiratorial tone, "I have just been reading the strangest book. It is called Lord Jim."


Miss Graves was my teacher in many fields for many years. She taught a Presbyterian Sunday School class, taking six or eight of us boys through most of the Old Testament. She taught me drawing in the lower grades, and she was later promoted to teaching English, both reading and composition. I think it was in the eighth grade that we were reading As You Like It. One evening my father happened to say that some people believed that the plays were not written by Shakespeare but by a man named Bacon. The next day I announced to the class that Shakespeare had not actually written the play we were reading. "You don't know what you are talking about," said Miss Graves. That afternoon I went down to the public library and drew out Edwin Durning-Lawrence's Bacon is Shakespeare. (1) The next day I did know what I was talking about, and I must have made life miserable for Miss Graves for the next month or two. Durning-Lawrence had analyzed act five, scene one of Love's Labours Lost, proving that the word honorificabilitudinitatibus was a cipher which, when properly interpreted, read, "These works, the offspring of Francis Bacon, are preserved for the world." To my amazement I discovered that the same act and scene in As You Like It was also cryptic. The philosopher Touchstone (who else but Bacon?) is disputing with the simple William (who else but Shakespeare?) for the possession of the fair Audrey (what else but the authorship of the plays?). The clincher was that William says that he was born in the Forest of Arden, and Shakespeare's mother's name was Arden. (0, the lovely adolescent obscenity of that "forest"!) I have long since lost interest in the Bacon-Shakespeare controversy, but in my defensive zeal I read biographies of Bacon, summaries of his philosophical position, and a good deal of The Advancement of Learning and Novum Organum. How much it meant to me at the age of 14 or 15 I cannot say, but Francis Bacon will turn up again in this story.

Miss Graves was probably responsible for the fact that in college I majored in English literature and afterwards embarked upon a career as a writer, and probably also for the fact that I have dabbled in art. I have never painted or sculpted really well, but I have enjoyed trying to do so.


My father had played the trumpet (then called the cornet) in a small orchestra, but he gave it up when he married. I never heard him play more than a few notes; he had "lost his lip." My mother played the piano well and had an excellent contralto voice. She sang at weddings and funerals -- and the same songs at both. I still have her copy of J.C. Bartlett's "A Dream." It begins, "Last night I was dreaming of thee, love, was dreaming......" A sacred text for use at funerals is added in her own hand: "Come, Jesus, Redeemer, abide thou with me-e...." At the age of 8 or 9 I studied the piano for a year with an old man who sucked Sens-sens and jabbed me in the ribs with a sharp pencil whenever I made a mistake. For a while I gave up the piano in favor of the saxophone. My father was then local attorney for the Erie Railroad, and he arranged for me to play with an employee's band. We never got beyond "Poet and Peasant," "Morning Noon and Night in Vienna," and other overtures by von Suppe, but I learned to love ensemble playing. I played in a jazz band during my high school years. When I returned to the piano again, a friend of the family who taught piano noticed that I was limited to my mother's sentimental music and a few volumes of Piano Pieces the Whole World Loves, and she sent me a copy of Mozart's Fourth Sonata. Shortly afterward I bought all the Mozart sonatas, playing at first only short passages here and there. Later I came to play them all through once a year in a kind of ritual.

I was never physically punished by my father and only once by, my mother. She washed my mouth out with soap and water because I had used a bad word. My father never missed an opportunity, however, to inform me of the punishments which were waiting if I turned out to have a criminal mind. He once took me through the county jail, and on a summer vacation I was taken to a lecture with colored slides describing life in Sing Sing. As a result I am afraid of the police and buy too many tickets to their annual dances.


My mother was quick to take alarm if I showed any deviation from what was "right." Her technique of control was to say "tut-tut" and to ask "what will people think?" I can easily recall the consternation in my family, when in second grade I brought home a report card on which, under "Deportment," the phrase "Annoys others" had been checked. Many things which were not "right" still haunt me. I was allowed to play in the cemetery next door, but it was not "right" to step on a grave. Recently in a cathedral I found myself executing a series of smart right-angle detours to avoid the engraved stones on the floor. I was taught to "respect books," and it is only with a twinge that I can today crack the spine of a book to make it stay open on the piano.


My Grandmother Skinner made sure that I understood the concept of hell by showing me the glowing bed of coals in the parlor stove. In a traveling magician's show I saw a devil complete with horns and barbed tail, and I lay awake all that night in an agony of fear. Miss Graves, though a devout Christian, was liberal. She explained, for example, that one might interpret the miracles in the Bible as figures of speech. Shortly after I reached puberty, I had a mystical experience. I lost a watch, which I had just been given by my family, and I was afraid to go home ("You would lose your head if it were not screwed on"). I took my bicycle and rode up along the river and followed the creek up to our shack. I was miserably unhappy. Suddenly, it occurred to me that happiness and unhappiness must cancel out and that if I were unhappy now I would necessarily be happy later. I was tremendously relieved. The principle came with the force of a revelation. In a mood of intense exaltation I started down along the creek. Halfway to the road, in a nest of dried grass beside the path, lay my watch. I have no explanation; I had certainly "lost" it in town. I took this as a Sign. I hurried home and wrote an account in biblical language and purple ink. (The ink I had made by dissolving the lead from an indelible pencil, and it had an appropriate golden sheen.) No other signs followed, however, and my new testament remained only one chapter in length. Within a year I had gone to Miss Graves to tell her that I no longer believed in God. "I know," she said, "I have been through that myself." But her strategy misfired: I never went through it.









In 1964, at the invitation of the Division of Social Psychology of the American Psychological Association, I gave an address called "The Science of Behavior and Human Dignity." In it I stated a theme to which I was to give most of the next 6 years -- the apparent encroachment of a science of behavior upon the freedom and dignity of the individual. The question of freedom had had a long history -- many philosophers, theologians, and behavioral scientists were determinists -- but the question of the feeling of dignity or worth had received much less attention. We are usually willing to attribute our shortcomings to our environment, but we want credit for our achievements. Nevertheless, as a scientific analysis traces our behavior to our genetic and personal histories, less and less seems to remain for which we ourselves are responsible.

That became the theme of Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which I published in 1971. Possibly because the book appeared at the conclusion of a decade in which young people had broken free from almost all societal control, it attracted a good deal of attention. Time magazine did a cover story on it, and it was on the best-seller lists for many months. Reactions were both positive and negative, the negative in many cases quite violent. The Time cover had me asserting that "We can't afford freedom," and my title convinced those who did not read the book that I was indeed against freedom and dignity. But in spite of the scientific evidence that we are not in any way responsible for our behavior, it is important that we should feel free and worthy, and I argued that by recognizing the scientific facts we could move more rapidly to a world in which people would feel as free and worthy as possible. [We are no freer than the monkey or the rat; simply our behavior is much more complex—including using language, mathematic and other logical systems].  What lay "beyond" the freedom and dignity of the individual was the survival of the species or, more immediately, of a way of life in which the potential of the species was more fully realized.

The negative reactions to Beyond Freedom and Dignity, made it clear that many people misunderstood the behavioristic position. The reviewers tended to recall the behaviorism they had learned about in courses in psychology. Behavior was said to be a matter of responses to stimuli; people were treated as if they were rats and pigeons, creative thinking was not accounted for, and so on. Many psychologists were dashing off in what I thought were unprofitable directions. It seemed necessary to restate the behavioristic position, and in an effort to do so, I published About Behaviorism in 1974. The central theme was simple: Philosophers and most psychologists were egocentric. A person was said to perceive the world, form concepts about it, engage in thought processes, and act upon the world intentionally or purposefully. The behavioristic position was just the opposite: A person comes under the control of a stimulating environment, responds to subtle properties of that environment, and responds to it in many complex ways because of the consequences contingent upon earlier responses. The environment selects behavior and, on the analogy of natural selection, takes over the role of creative thought, purpose, and plans. The cognitive processes which had become so popular a subject of psychology were really misrepresentations of the role of contingencies of reinforcement. They were inferred from behavior in relation to the environment. They could not be directly observed because "there were no nerves going to the right places in the brain."

At the same time I began to write a book on the future. Overpopulation, the exhaustion of resources, the pollution of the environment, and the growing probability of a nuclear holocaust also lay "beyond freedom and dignity" unless something was done about them. I wrote a book-length manuscript and brought a revision up to the same length, but decided not to publish it. Instead I gave several lectures on the subject, the title of one of them, "Are We Free to Have a Future?" indicating its relation to Beyond Freedom and Dignity. I am currently at work on a further statement of the position.

Many of the attacks on Beyond Freedom and Dignity were personal:  Reviews were accompanied by portraits of me in which my head was attached to the bodies of rats and pigeons.  On one campus I was hanged in effigy. I decided that it was time to "report me and my cause aright," and that I should write an autobiography. I began with a few rules. Whenever possible, I would use documentary evidence rather than recollection, I would tell the story as it happened with as little contemporary interpretation as possible. I would include personal details but allow the reader to infer their connections, with my life as a psychologist. The first volume, Particulars of My Life, brings the story up to the point at which I left for Harvard to become a graduate student in psychology. The second, The Shaping of a Behaviorist, covers the ensuing 20 years, when I returned to Harvard as a professor. A third volume will, I hope, complete the story.

In 1964 I received a Career Award from the National institute of Mental Health. For 5 years, renewable for another 5, it would free me from all commitments to the University and allow me to devote myself to an analysis of cultural practices from the point of view of an experimental analysis of behavior. Of the four books written during those 10 years, Beyond Freedom and Dignity was closest to the assigned theme. The grant terminated upon my retirement in 1974, but I have continued to work in the same vein.

The arrival of a new graduate student, Robert Epstein, made a change. He edited a volume composed of papers I had recently published, which was called Reflections on Behaviorism and Society. He also discovered that I had written thousands of notes over the years and edited a selection of them under the title Notebooks.

As a more drastic change, he persuaded me to return to laboratory experimentation. I was ready to do so because I thought tremendous opportunities were being neglected in the field of the experimental analysis of behavior. Few people seemed to understand the role of contingencies of reinforcement in shaping and maintaining the behavior of such an organism as a pigeon, but it was those contingencies which, I had argued in About Behaviorism, were the factual side of so-called cognitive processes. We collaborated on a variety of research, including a 3-year project which we eventually called "Columban [Pigeon] Simulation." Through careful construction of complex contingencies of reinforcement, we were able to get pigeons to exhibit behavior said to show "symbolic communication," "spontaneous use of memoranda," self-concept," "insight," and other so-called cognitive or creative processes.




Autobiographical  by Skinner


Particulars of My Life (1976, Knopf)


The shaping of a Behaviorist (1979, Knopf)


Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978, Prentice-Hall)


Enjoying Old Age (with Vaughan, 1983, Knopf)


Upon Further Reflections (1987, Prentice-Hall)



Popular works:


About Behaviorism (1974, Knopf)


A Matter of Consequences, (1984, Knopf)


Recent Issues in the Analysis of Behavior (1987, Merrill)


Jk recommends for those who would enjoy a philosophical work arguing the logical necessity for behaviors that you read his 1954 work Science and Human Behavior.  Skinner has a strong academic background in philosophy, and as a consequence this work has been included for some years in the course readings by professors of philosophy in their courses. 

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