B Fred Skinner

In some circles behaviourism is associated with a kind of fascism, or at the very least an austere puritanism (to contrast it with its nemesis, the literary/humanistic psychoanalysis). B.F. Skinner particularly suffers from this association, because of his pivotal role in the development of the science and philosophy of behaviourism, and perhaps because of some of his political writings (e.g. ‘Beyond Freedom and Dignity‘, 1971). There’s even an entirely false story that he applied behaviourist control techniques to his family, with disastrous results.

Skinner As Self-Manager by Rober Epstein, a student and later colleague of Skinner, gives an account of Skinner, and his style of life, which is in stark contrast to the disempowering, mechanistically-clinical, image some might have of behaviourist psychology:


Each day of our collaboration brought new projects and new excitement, and, as I got to know Skinner better, my awe began to subside. He insisted, for one thing, that I call him ‚ÄòFred,‚Äô and it‚Äôs hard to be in awe of someone named Fred (his full name is Burrhus Frederic Skinner)… Fred‚Äôs manner was casual and far from intimidating. He often leaned back in his chair as he spoke, and his eyes sparkled with the energy of a man in his 20s, even though he was past 70. He told jokes and recited limericks, and he loved to hear new ones.

To my knowledge, and all of the rumors notwithstanding, Fred did not rely on ‘behavior modification’ techniques to ‘control’ people. Quite the contrary. He was relaxed, natural, and gentle in most of his dealings with other people. His interpersonal style was made milder, if anything, by the scientific principles he helped to develop, because his research convinced him that punishment was a poor tool for changing behavior, so he avoided using it in his everyday life.

Life, to Fred, was a series of joys to relish and challenges to overcome, and he did both extremely well…Fred was the most creative, most productive, and happiest person I have ever known.

One Comment

  1. Posted November 24, 2006 at 2:33 pm | Permalink

    Great article. The really interesting bit to me is the glimpse into how Skinner managed his life. I wouldn’t hope or wish for the kind of productivity he enjoyed, but there are a few inspiring ideas in there. I blogged a bit more about the article.


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