What drives human behaviour? Can we predict and control actions through environmental conditioning? These are questions that B.F. Skinner sought to answer. Skinner was a pioneering American psychologist and behaviourist who focused on operant conditioning as a way to understand and predict human and animal behaviour. He rejected introspective methods and the study of consciousness, choosing instead to focus on observable behaviours and their manipulation through the environment.

What Type of Psychologist was B.F. Skinner?

B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist psychologist best known for his work on operant conditioning. He developed the concept of the “Skinner Box,” a controlled environment used to study animal behavior, and introduced terms like “reinforcement” and “punishment” to explain how behavior is shaped by its consequences. Skinner’s theories emphasized the role of external stimuli in determining behavior, rather than internal thoughts and feelings, making him a prominent figure in the behaviorist school of psychology.

Early Life and Education

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born in 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He initially aimed to become a writer but later shifted his focus to psychology. Skinner earned his PhD from Harvard University in 1931, and his research work soon gained prominence in the academic community.


Behaviourism is a psychological approach that focuses on observable behaviours. It emphasises the role of environmental factors in shaping actions, rather than innate characteristics or mental processes. Skinner became a leading figure in this field, particularly through his development of the theory of operant conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

Skinner is most renowned for his work on operant conditioning, a type of learning where behaviour is strengthened or weakened by the consequences that follow it. He employed devices known as “Skinner boxes,” which were chambers containing a lever that an animal could press to receive a reward, like food, or avoid an unpleasant stimulus. Through these experiments, Skinner demonstrated how behaviours could be shaped and maintained over time.

Theories and Contributions

One of Skinner’s most famous contributions is the concept of reinforcement. In his model, behaviours that are followed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, whereas those that are followed by unpleasant outcomes are less likely to recur. He also introduced the idea of “schedules of reinforcement,” which dictate how and when rewards are given, greatly influencing the frequency and stability of the targeted behaviour.

Skinner’s theories had significant implications not just for psychology but also for education, the penal system, and even marketing. His work laid the foundation for a wide array of applications, from animal training to behavioural therapy for humans.

Criticisms and Legacy

While Skinner’s work has had a lasting impact, it has also faced its share of criticism. Many argue that his approach is too reductionist and neglects the complexity of human cognition and emotion. Nevertheless, his contributions to psychology and the broader scientific community cannot be easily dismissed.

In summary, B.F. Skinner was an influential psychologist specialising in behaviourism, particularly in the field of operant conditioning. His research has left a lasting impact on multiple disciplines and remains a cornerstone of psychological theory and practice today.

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