Understanding Skinners Contributions

So much has been written about Skinner, some of it misleading or false, that it is important to clarify what he did not do. He did not raise either of his daughters in a "Skinner box." His youngest daughter was raised during her infancy with the aid of an "aircrib," a special enclosed crib Skinner built that allowed control of air temperature and humidity, and in which the infant could sleep and play without the burden of clothes. "Aircribs" were later available commercially. Skinner did not limit his analysis of behavior only to publicly observable events, as did the methodological behaviorists. Part of what made Skinner's behaviorism radical was his insistence that a science of behavior should be able to account for those private events—events to which only the individual has access, such as the pain of a toothache—to which only the individual has access. He described how the community teaches its members to describe covert events such as toothaches and headaches. He did not regard such events as anything other than behavior. That is, he did not give them a special status by calling them "mental events."

Skinner did not argue that reinforcement explains everything. He allowed, especially in his later works, that genetic endowment plays a role in the determination of behavior, as do rules and antecedent events. He did not reject physiological explanations of behavior when actual physiology was involved. He did object to the use of physiological terms in psychological accounts, unless the physiological mechanisms were known. For Skinner, physiology was one subject matter and behavior was another. Finally, he did not ignore complex behavior. Many of his works, particularly Verbal Behavior and The Technology of Teaching (1968), offered behaviorist analyses ofwhatin other psychologies would be termed cognitive phenomena, such as talking, reading, thinking, problem solving, and remembering.

Skinner made many contributions to twentieth century psychology. Among them was his invention of the operant chamber and its associated methodology. Operant equipment and procedures are employed by animal and human experimental psychologists in laboratories around the world. Most of these psychologists do not adhere to Skinner's radical behaviorism or to all the features of his science of behavior. They have, however, found the techniques that he developed to be productive in exploring a wide variety of problems, ranging from the fields of psychopharmacology to learning in children and adults to experimental economics. Skinner and his followers developed a technology of behavior that included techniques for working with the developmentally disabled, children in elementary classrooms, and persons with rehabilitation or health care problems. They also considered approaches to public safety, employee motivation and production, and any other field which involved the management of behavior. Although the technology developments never reached the vision described in Walden Two, the efforts are ongoing.

Skinner may have exhausted the Law of Effect. The idea which states that consequences influence behavior can be found in many forms in the literature of psychology and philosophy, especially since the middle of the nineteenth century, but it is only in the work of B. F. Skinner that one sees how much of human and animal behavior can be brought within its purview. Because Skinner took behavior as his subject matter, he greatly expanded what could be regarded as being of interest to psychologists. Behavior was everywhere, in the classroom, at the office, in the factory. Nearly any aspect of human activity could become the legitimate object of study by a Skinnerian psychologist, a point well illustrated in Skinner's description of a utopian community which takes an experimental attitude toward its cultural practices and designs a culture based on a science of behavior (Walden Two). Finally, Skinner conceptualized an epistemology, a way of understanding what it means for humans to know something, that may be a lasting contribution to twentieth century philosophy.

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