Skinner's Radical Behavorism

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) created a new form of behaviorism known as radical behaviorism because it argues that the science of behavior is a natural science. As such behaviors have no agency and that they can be explained through other natural events (Baum, 1995). In other words, understood through analysis of the environment and evolution of the organism alone. There is no place for hypothetical mental constructs or internal states (Baum, 2011). He remained dedicated to this position completing his final paper Can psychology be a science of mind (Skinner, 1990) the day after he died (Benjamin, 2014).

Skinner's research methods were unconventional, so much so, that his postgraduate students found it challenging to get their work published (Benjamin, 2014). He invented many of his research methods and equipment, such as the Skinner box (Baum, 2011). Where mainstream experimental psychology was focused on statistics, Skinner would focus on one animal over a period with repeated conditioning (Benjamin, 2014). Skinner (1948) describes how pigeons were conditioned to produce ritual-like behavior patterns.

"One bird was conditioned to turn counter-clockwise about the cage... Another repeatedly thrust its head into one upper corners of the cage" (Skinner, 1948:168-9).

Skinner Box

Skinner's operant conditioning described a method whereby behavior can be strengthened through reinforcers, suppressed through punishers, and ultimately eliminated through extinction (Skinner 1938). Skinner went on to further define these concepts in both positive and negative manifestations (Benjamin, 2014). Positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a rewarding consequence. Whereas, negative reinforcement was the negation of an unpleasant or unwanted consequence. Skinner used electrical current in his experiments that rats could avoid be performing the required behavior. Punishment worked in the same way with positive punishment introduces and unpleasant consequence and a negative punishment removes a rewarding or pleasant consequence (Skinner, 1951).

Skinner also developed what was called 'schedules of reinforcement' whereby different patterns of reinforcement (variation in the ratio of reward to response or variation in the time interval of reward) were used to understand the impact on behavior (Ferster, 2002). The importance of this may be taken for granted now but it fundamentally changed the behavioral research by adding new variables (Baum, 2011).

In 1951 Skinner introduced the idea of behavior shaping whereby complex behavior could be produced through differential reinforcement of successive approximations.

"A functionally coherent unit of behavior... is constructed by a continual process of differential behavior from undifferentiated behavior, just as the sculptor shapes his figure from a lump of clay" (Skinner, 1953:93).

Behavior shaping and modification (later called ABA, Applied Behavioral Analysis) led to practical application in therapy and education (McLeod, 2015).

Finally, Skinner brought his concepts of operant conditioning, behavior shaping together to argue that a science of behavior can lead to technology of behavior. In 1971 he published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, which made the New York Times bestseller list, and put a psychologist on the cover of Time magazine (September 20, 1971). He argued that through manipulation of the environment we could engineer cultures and behavior for the betterment of the human species (Skinner, 1971).

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Baum, W. M. (1995) Radical behaviorism and the concept of agency. Behaviorology 3, 93–106.

Baum, W. M. (2011) What is Radical Behaviorism? A Review of Jay Moore's Conceptual Foundations of Radical Behaviorism, Journal of Experimental Analysis of Behavior 95, 119-126

Benjamin, L. T. Jr. (2014) A Brief History of Modern Psychology (2nd Edition). Wiley: New Jersey

Ferster, C. B. (2002) Schedules of reinforcement, Journal of the experimental analysis of behavior, 3 (May), 303-311

Kardas, E. P. (2014) History of Psychology: The Making of a Science. Wadsworth: London.

McLeod, S. A. (2015) Skinner - operant conditioning. Retrieved from

Skinner, B. F. (1938) The Behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Appleton-Century: New York.

Skinner, B. F. (1948) 'Superstition' in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172

Skinner, B. F. (1951) How to teach animals. Scientific American, 185 (12), 26-9.

Skinner, B. F. (1953) Science and human behavior. Macmillan: Oxford

Skinner, B. F. (1971) Beyond Freedom and Dignity

Skinner, B. F. (1990) Can psychology be a science of the mind? American Psychologist, 1990 (45) 1206-10.

Images & Video

B. F. Skinner:

Skinner Box: McLeod, S. A. (2015) Skinner - operant conditioning. Retrieved from

Interview with B. F. Skinner: Skinner, B. F. (1977) Skinner on Behaviourism, published by Biophily2 and accessed on YouTube:

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