US psychologist and one of the leading members of a US-based school of experimental psychology that arose in the 1930s and was concerned with investigating the learning ability of animals by using carefully controlled laboratory experiments.
Skinner received his MA (1930) and PhD (1931) from Harvard University and remained there as research fellow until 1933, when he joined the University of Minnesota as an instructor in psychology, later becoming assistant professor (1937–39) and associate professor (1939–45). During World War II Skinner investigated the feasibility of training pigeons to pilot missiles but this was never put into practice. After the war, while professor of psychology at Indiana University (1945–48), he devised his ‘Air-Crib’, a hermetically sealed chamber which, he claimed, provided the optimum environment for the growing infant. Moving to Harvard as professor of psychology (1948–75), Skinner designed laboratory apparatus to examine learning in experimental animals, such as rats and pigeons. For instance, rats placed in a ‘Skinner box’ learnt to press a lever to receive a pellet of food. Other experiments involved learning the correct route through mazes or accomplishing other tasks, usually employing food as a reward for success and electric shocks as punishment for failure. Ethologists, such as Konrad Lorenz, criticized such studies as being artificially restricted and often irrelevant to animals in their natural surroundings. However, Skinner used his behaviourist principles in programmed learning courses designed for schools and colleges, using a teaching machine to provide stepwise instruction in certain subjects. His books include The Behavior of Organisms (1938), Science and Human Behavior (1953), Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), and Skinner for the Classroom (1982). He also wrote a novel, Walden Two (1948), which describes life in a utopian community based on Skinner's own ideas about social engineering.