Profile is a series of brief biographies on noted Pennsylvanians.

Well known among those who advanced the understanding of human behavior are Plato, Socrates, Descartes, Sigmund Freud, Alfred Adler, Carl Jung, and Carl Rogers. Northeastern Pennsylvania claims another great thinker as a native son, one who revolutionized the field of behavioral psychology, the controversial B. F. Skinner.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born March 20, 1904, in Susquehanna, Susquehanna County, the son of William A. Skinner, a successful attorney, and Grace M. Burrhus Skinner, a homemaker. Growing up in what he later described as a “dirty railroad town,” near the Pennsylvania and New York border, young Skinner possessed a natural curiosity about nearly everything he observed or encountered. As a teenager, he was fascinated with the idea of a perpetual motion machine, but had more practical success inventing a flotation device, which he used to separate green elderberries from ripe berries in order to sell them door to door. He also invented a device that spread janitorial “green dust” while he swept floors at a shoe store.

Early on, Skinner was not afraid to question the status quo. In a high school English class studying William Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Skinner blurted out that Francis Bacon, whom Skinner admired for developing inductive reasoning in science, was the real author of the pastoral comedy. Skinner later dedicated his book, The Technology of Teaching (1968), to the teacher of that class, Mary Graves, an individual whom he admired and characterized in his memoirs as “a dedicated person with cultural interests far beyond the level of the town.”

In 1926, he graduated with a bachelor of arts in literature from Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He wanted to become a writer, but felt he had little worldly experience to write fiction. He wrote about a dozen newspaper articles but published only one novel, Walden Two (1948), a story about a utopia where technology solves problems of human conduct. In 1927, he moved from his parents’ home in Scranton to New York City. He worked in a bookstore, where the works of John B. Watson (1878–1958), an American who established the psychological school of behaviorism, and Russian scientist Ivan P. Pavlov (1849–1936), famous for his conditioning experiments with dogs, greatly influenced him. The writings of Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), a British intellectual, philosopher, political commentator, and mathematician who, in 1950, became a Nobel Laureate in literature, also had a tremendous impact on him.

At the age of 24, Skinner enrolled at Harvard University. By the time he earned his PhD from Harvard in 1931, he had challenged widely held ideas about behavior that followed Freud’s introspective approach to psychology. Skinner believed the mental processes are not important to studying behavior and offered theories that a system of operant conditioning could reshape behavior.

One of his best-known (but generally misunderstood) inventions was the Skinner Box. He constructed enclosures for animals to test their response to harmless stimuli. He initially worked with pigeons, offering the birds rewards for “correct” behavior, and withholding rewards for undesired behavior. During World War II, he designed a successful missile system in which pigeons were trained to peck and improve the accuracy of the rocket. The invention of radar ended the project.

Skinner’s approach allows complicated tasks to be broken down and taught one step at a time. His approach to behavior modification and learning has been adapted and applied to education, psychology, therapy, sociology, military training, parenting, and to the criminal justice system.

Skinner and his wife, Yvonne “Eve” Blue Skinner (1911–1997), whom he married in 1936, built a so-called “air crib” for his infant daughter. Controversy swirled around the Skinners when news about the crib appeared in the October 1945 issue of Ladies Home Journal with the sensational headline, “Baby in a Box.” An accompanying photograph showed baby Deborah Skinner in a smaller mockup version of the crib with her hands pressed against the inside of a glass front. Those who did not carefully read the article erroneously assumed the couple kept the infant in a small Skinner Box. False rumors later circulated that Skinner had psychologically damaged his daughter. As recently as 2004, Deborah Skinner Buzan has discounted any negative effects from her parents’ unorthodox “air crib.” The eldest daughter, Julie Skinner Vargas, founder of the B. F. Skinner Foundation, adamantly supports her father’s methods and raised two daughters of her own using the same air crib design.

Deborah’s actual crib was as large as a normal crib. The enclosed, insulated crib looked like a hospital incubator with a tempered glass front that opened and closed. Filtered air circulated, although not germ-free, with humidity and temperature controlled from 86 degrees, comfortable for an infant, to 78 degrees for a toddler. Skinner believed that blankets and clothing, other than a diaper, impeded a child’s movement and growth. The physical benefit was an infant more comfortable, with less laundry, fewer necessary baths, and fewer rashes, resulting in more quality time left for infant and parents.

B. F. Skinner also argued that punishment is an ineffective way of combating crime. “A person who has been punished,” he claimed, “is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.” He noted that individuals still commit crimes even though they know they risked conviction and imprisonment. To change behavior, Skinner advocated the use of positive and negative reinforcement.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Skinner the National Medal of Science. The National Psychological Foundation bestowed its prestigious gold medal on him in 1971, and the following year the American Humanist Association named him Humanist of the Year. Skinner’s techniques have been particularly effective in work with autistic and developmentally disabled children, in classroom management, and in labor management. Many of today’s self-teaching computer, video, and audio programs evolved from Skinner’s methods.

Skinner’s detractors usually focus on his ideas for a better society as being too Machiavellian or Orwellian, but he articulated his opposition to totalitarianism. He believed that determinism through our environment profoundly influences behavior and that practical, scientific approaches to behavior, and positive uses of technology could give an individual a sense of dignity and a feeling that he or she has contributed to society. Misrepresentation of his work prompted him to write a book in 1974, About Behaviorism.

Skinner taught at the University of Minnesota and Indiana University before returning, as a tenured professor in 1948, to Harvard University, where he spent the remainder of his career. Diagnosed with leukemia in 1989, he died on August 18, 1990, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.