Don’t throw BF Skinner’s research out…along with his bath water

I posted two quotes from Skinner on Twitter and Facebook and am surprised at the response. Publicly and privately friends express their hatred of B.F. Skinner. Even Noam Chomsky spent pages (years ago) raging against Skinner.

However,  Skinner’s work may be more valuable today than ever.  He conducted many important studies, and pioneered the field of using machines (computers) as learning tools, so I believe it is worth while looking back with 20/20 hindsight to see what was valuable, insightful, or just his misinterpretation. The notion “consider the source” is a valid consideration, but too often we use our emotions to either glorify or vilify others.

Isn’t it time we begin judging the merit of a message on how well that particular message resonates  and begin to separate message from messenger?

Skinner, I know, has become a euphemism for, ok, an icon of, narrow-minded step-by-step instruction.

However, his big rPrincipal Skinnerevelations:

  • small immediate rewards shape behavior better than punishment,
  • random generous rewards can be a tremendous motivator (slot machines as a case in point)

Skinner had a lot of valid criticisms of modern capitalism and the excesses of over-consumption. He believed that television made representational democracy impossible as small bits of positive reinforcement (a solid hand shake, a positive outlook, a trust worthy expression )swayed voters more than effective policies or complicated solutions.

So, enough of my pro-Skinner ranting for now. I hope these videos of BF’s experiments make you reflect on your behavior half as much as they made me reflect on mine.

Skinner videos:

Pigeon Ping Pong (way better than cat juggling)

Making a pigeon dance

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2 thoughts on “Don’t throw BF Skinner’s research out…along with his bath water

  1. Very much appreciate your reassesment of the valuable and widely misunderstood contribution of BF Skinner! My mom worked with him and admired him greatly, and I have used his fascinating attempt at illustrating the principles of his work in the classic “Walden Two” in teaching political theory and social science. Thanks for the reminder!

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