Saturday, February 27, 2010
Burrhus Frederic Skinner’s Biography
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist, author, inventor, advocate for social reform, and poet. He was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974. He came up with the operant conditioning chamber, innovated his own philosophy of science called Radical Behaviorism, and founded his own school of experimental research psychology—the experimental analysis of behavior. His analysis of human behavior culminated in his work Verbal Behavior, which has recently seen enormous increase in interest experimentally and in applied settings. He discovered and advanced the rate of response as a dependent variable in psychological research. He invented the cumulative recorder to measure rate of responding as part of his highly influential work on schedules of reinforcement. In a recent survey, Skinner was listed as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. He was a prolific author who published 21 books and 180 articles.
Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania to Grace and William Skinner. His father was a lawyer. His brother Edward, two and a half years his junior, died at age sixteen of a cerebral hemorrhage.
He attended Hamilton College in New York with the intention of becoming a writer. While attending, he joined Lambda Chi Alpha Fraternity. He wrote for the school paper, but as an atheist, he was critical of the religious school he attended. He received his B.A. in English literature in 1926. After graduation, he spent a year at his parents' home in Scranton attempting to become a writer of fiction. He soon became disillusioned with his literary skills and concluded that he had little world experience and no strong personal perspective from which to write.
Skinner received a PhD from Harvard in 1931, and remained there as a researcher until 1936. He then taught at the University of Minnesota at Minneapolis and later at Indiana University, where he was chair of the psychology department from 1946–1947, before returning to Harvard as a tenured professor in 1948. He remained at Harvard for the rest of his career.
In 1936 Skinner married Yvonne Blue. The couple had two daughters, Julie (m. Vargas) and Deborah (m. Buzan). He died of leukemia on August 18th 1990 and is buried in Mount Auburn Cemetery, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Radical behaviorism seeks to understand behavior as a function of environmental histories of reinforcing consequences.
Reinforcement processes were emphasized by Skinner, and were seen as primary in the shaping of behavior. A common misconception is that negative reinforcement is some form of punishment. This misconception is rather pervasive, and is commonly found in even scholarly accounts of Skinner and his contributions. To be clear, while positive reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the application of some event (e.g., praise after some behavior is performed), negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior by the removal or avoidance of some aversive event (e.g., opening and raising an umbrella over your head on a rainy day is reinforced by the cessation of rain falling on you). Both types of reinforcement strengthen behavior, or increase the probability of a behavior reoccurring; the difference is in whether the reinforcing event is something applied (positive reinforcement) or something removed or avoided (negative reinforcement). Punishment and extinction have the effect of weakening behavior, or decreasing the probability of a behavior reoccurring, by the application of an aversive event (punishment) or the removal of a rewarding event (extinction).
Graduate School and Discovery
At the age of 24, Skinner enrolled in the Psychology Department of Harvard University. Still rebellious and impatient with what he considered unintelligent ideas, Skinner found a mentor equally caustic and hard-driving. William Crozier was the chair of a new department of Physiology. Crozier fervently adhered to a program of studying the behaviour of "the animal as a whole" without appealing, as the psychologists did, to processes going on inside. That exactly matched Skinner's goal of relating behaviour to experimental conditions. The student was encouraged to experiment. Each department, Psychology, and Physiology, assumed the other was supervising the young student, but the fact was he was "doing exactly as I pleased". With his enthusiasm and talent for building new equipment, Skinner constructed apparatus after apparatus as his rats' behavior suggested changes. After a dozen pieces of apparatus and some lucky accidents (described in his A Case History in Scientific Method), Skinner invented the cumulative recorder, a mechanical device that recorded every response as an upward movement of a horizontally moving line. The slope showed rate of responding. This recorder revealed the impact of the contingencies over responding. Skinner discovered that the rate with which the rat pressed the bar depended not on any preceding stimulus (as Watson and Pavlov had insisted), but on what followed the bar presses. This was new indeed. Unlike the reflexes that Pavlov had studied, this kind of behaviour operated on the environment and was controlled by its effects. Skinner named it operant behaviour. The process of arranging the contingencies of reinforcement responsible for producing this new kind of behaviour he called operant conditioning. A fellowship allowed Skinner to spend his next five years investigating not only the effect of following consequences and the schedules on which they were delivered, but also how prior stimuli gained control over behaviour-consequence relationships with which they were paired. These studies eventually appeared in his first book, The Behaviour of Organisms (1938).
Skinner's particular brand of behaviorism he called "Radical" behaviorism which, unlike less austere behaviorisms, does not accept private events such as thinking, personal perceptions, and unobservable emotions in a causal account of an organism's behavior, presumably a self-aware one reporting such states as an observer of itself:
The position can be stated as follows: what is felt or introspectively observed is not some nonphysical world of consciousness, mind, or mental life but the observer's own body. This does not mean, as I shall show later, that introspection is a kind of psychological research, nor does it mean (and this is the heart of the argument) that what are felt or introspectively observed are the causes of the behavior. An organism behaves as it does because of its current structure, but most of this is out of reach of introspection. At the moment we must content ourselves, as the methodological behaviorist insists, with a persons genetic and environment histories. What are introspectively observed are certain collateral products of those histories.
In this way we repair the major damage wrought by mentalism. When what a person does [is] attributed to what is going on inside him, investigation is brought to an end. Why explain the explanation? For twenty five hundred years people have been preoccupied with feelings and mental life, but only recently has any interest been shown in a more precise analysis of the role of the environment. Ignorance of that role lead in the first place to mental fictions, and it has been perpetuated by the explanatory practices to which they gave rise.
It can be seen by the above that this methodological stance is a reaction and predates the current level of advancement, in which mental structures can be observed in operation via technologies such as functional MRI.
Challenged by Alfred North Whitehead during a casual discussion while at Harvard to provide an account of a randomly provided piece of verbal behavior Skinner set about attempting to extend his then-new functional, inductive, approach to the complexity of human verbal behavior. Developed over two decades, his work appeared as the culmination of the William James lectures in the book, Verbal Behavior. Although Noam Chomsky was highly critical of Verbal Behavior, he conceded that it was the "most careful and thoroughgoing presentation of such speculations", confusing Skinner's stance with "S-R psychology"  as a reason for giving it "a review." Verbal Behavior had an uncharacteristically slow reception, partly as a result of Chomsky's review, paired with Skinner's neglect to address or rebut any of Chomsky's condemnations. Skinner's peers may have been slow to adopt and consider the conventions within Verbal Behavior due to its lack of experimental evidence—unlike the empirical density that marked Skinner's previous work. However, Skinner's functional analysis of verbal behavior has seen a resurgence of interest in applied settings.
Influence on education This section may require cleanup to meet Wikipedia's quality standards. Please improve this section if you can. (December 2007)
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Skinner influenced education as well as psychology. He was quoted as saying "Teachers must learn how to teach ... they need only to be taught more effective ways of teaching." Skinner asserted that positive reinforcement is more effective at changing and establishing behavior than punishment, with obvious implications for the then widespread practice of rote learning and punitive discipline in education. Skinner also suggests that the main thing people learn from being punished is how to avoid punishment.
Skinner says that there are five main obstacles to learning:
People have a fear of failure.
The task is not broken down into small enough steps.
There is a lack of directions.
There is also a lack of clarity in the directions.
Positive reinforcement is lacking.
Skinner suggests that any age-appropriate skill can be taught using five principles to remedy the above problems:
Give the learner immediate feedback.
Break down the task into small steps.
Repeat the directions as many times as possible.
Work from the most simple to the most complex tasks.
Give positive reinforcement.
Skinner's views on education are extensively presented in his book The Technology of Teaching. It is also reflected in Fred S. Keller's Personalized System of Instruction and Ogden R. Lindsley's Precision Teaching.
Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity
Skinner is popularly known mainly for his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. The former describes a visit to an imaginary utopian commune in 1940s United States, where the productivity and happiness of the citizens is far in advance of that in the outside world because of their practice of scientific social planning and use of operant conditioning in the raising of children.
Walden Two, like Thoreau's Walden, champions a lifestyle that does not support war or foster competition and social strife. It encourages a lifestyle of minimal consumption, rich social relationships, personal happiness, satisfying work and leisure.
In Beyond Freedom and Dignity, Skinner suggests that a technology of behavior could help to make a better society. We would, however, have to accept that an autonomous agent is not the driving force of our actions. Skinner offers alternatives to punishment and challenges his readers to use science and modern technology to construct a better society.
Schedules of reinforcement
Part of Skinner's analysis of behavior involved not only the power of a single instance of reinforcement, but the effects of particular schedules of reinforcement over time.
Skinner's types of schedules of reinforcement involved: interval (fixed or variable) and ratio (fixed or variable).
Continuous reinforcement — constant delivery of reinforcement for an action; every time a specific action was performed the subject instantly and always received a reinforcement. This method is very hard to carry out, and the reinforced behavior is prone to extinction.
Interval (fixed/variable) reinforcement (Fixed) — reinforcement is set for a certain time duration. (Variable) — times between reinforcements are not set, and often differ.
Ratio (fixed or variable) reinforcement (Fixed) — deals with a set amount of work needed to be completed before there is reinforcement. (Variable) — amount of work needed for the reinforcement differs from the last.
Skinner's political writings emphasized his hopes that an effective and humane science of behavioral control – a technology of human behavior – could help problems unsolved by earlier approaches or aggravated by advances in technology such as the atomic bomb. One of Skinner's stated goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself. He comprehended political control as aversive or non-aversive, with the purpose to control a population. Skinner opposed the use of positive reinforcement as a means of coercion, citing Jean-Jacques Rousseau's novel Emile: or, On Education as an example of freedom literature that "did not fear the power of positive reinforcement". Skinner's book, Walden Two, presents a vision of a decentralized, localized society, which applies a practical, scientific approach and futuristically advanced behavioral expertise to peacefully deal with social problems. Skinner's utopia, like every other utopia or dystopia, is both a thought experiment and a rhetorical piece. In his book, Skinner answers the problem that exists in many utopian novels – "What is the Good Life?" In Walden Two, the answer is a life of friendship, health, art, a healthy balance between work and leisure, a minimum of unpleasantness, and a feeling that one has made worthwhile contributions to one's society. This was to be achieved through behavioral technology, which could offer alternatives to coercion, as good science applied correctly would help society, and allow all people to cooperate with each other peacefully. Skinner described his novel as "my New Atlantis", in reference to Bacon's utopia. He opposed corporal punishment in the school, and wrote a letter to the California Senate that helped lead it to a ban on spanking.
When Milton's Satan falls from heaven, he ends in hell. And what does he say to reassure himself? 'Here, at least, we shall be free.' And that, I think, is the fate of the old-fashioned liberal. He's going to be free, but he's going to find himself in hell.
—B. F. Skinner , from William F. Buckley Jr, On the Firing Line, p. 87.
Superstition in the pigeon
One of Skinner's experiments and oh sah examined the formation of superstition in one of his favorite experimental animals, the pigeon. Skinner placed a series of hungry pigeons in a cage attached to an automatic mechanism that delivered food to the pigeon "at regular intervals with no reference whatsoever to the bird's behavior." He discovered that the pigeons associated the delivery of the food with whatever chance actions they had been performing as it was delivered, and that they subsequently continued to perform these same actions.
One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage, making two or three turns between reinforcements. Another repeatedly thrust its head into one of the upper corners of the cage. A third developed a 'tossing' response, as if placing its head beneath an invisible bar and lifting it repeatedly. Two birds developed a pendulum motion of the head and body, in which the head was extended forward and swung from right to left with a sharp movement followed by a somewhat slower return.
Skinner suggested that the pigeons behaved as if they were influencing the automatic mechanism with their "rituals" and that this experiment shed light on human behavior:
The experiment might be said to demonstrate a sort of superstition. The bird behaves as if there were a causal relation between its behavior and the presentation of food, although such a relation is lacking. There are many analogies in human behavior. Rituals for changing one's fortune at cards are good examples. A few accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences suffice to set up and maintain the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. The bowler who has released a ball down the alley but continues to behave as if she were controlling it by twisting and turning her arm and shoulder is another case in point. These behaviors have, of course, no real effect upon one's luck or upon a ball half way down an alley, just as in the present case the food would appear as often if the pigeon did nothing—or, more strictly speaking, did something else.
Modern behavioral psychologists have disputed Skinner's "superstition" explanation for the behaviors he recorded. Subsequent research (e.g. Staddon and Simmelhag, 1971), while finding similar behavior, failed to find support for Skinner's "adventitious reinforcement" explanation for it. By looking at the timing of different behaviors within the interval, Staddon and Simmelhag were able to distinguish two classes of behavior: the terminal response, which occurred in anticipation of food, and interim responses, that occurred earlier in the interfood interval and were rarely contiguous with food. Terminal responses seem to reflect classical (rather than operant) conditioning, rather than adventitious reinforcement, guided by a process like that observed in 1968 by Brown and Jenkins in their "autoshaping" procedures. The causation of interim activities (such as the schedule-induced polydipsia seen in a similar situation with rats) also cannot be traced to adventitious reinforcement and its details are still obscure (Staddon, 1977).