Dissemination of Behavior Analysis

Special Interest Group (DBA-SIG)

Skinner - Misconceptions

Here are some other common misconceptions about BF Skinner. At first, we thought about sharing all of our thoughts, and tell you why we think they're inaccurate statements, but we decided we'd rather just let Skinner tell you himself...

The list of common misrepresentations were reprinted with permission from Joe Wyatt excerpted from his book: B.F. Skinner From A to Z . You can get a copy or check out his website at: http://www.josephwyatt.net/


Misconceptions about Skinner

  1. Skinner ignores biology and genetic influence

    A given instance of aggression can generally be traced to both phylogenic and ontogenic contingencies, since both kinds of variables are generally operative upon a given occasion."

    "Operant conditioning is as much a part of the genetic endowment as digestion or gestation. The question is not whether the human species has a genetic endowmment, but how it is to be analyzed. It begins and remains a biological system, and the behavioristic position is that it is nothing more than that..."

    Excerpts taken from: 1Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall 2Skinner, B.F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

  2. Skinner advocates totalitarianism

    "Democracy is a version of countercontrol designed to solve the problem of manipulation."

    "Government has always been the special field of aversive control."

    "Under a government which controls through positive reinforcement the citizen feels free, though he is no less controlled. Freedom from government is freedom from aversive consequences. We choose a form of government which maximizes freedom for a very simple reason: aversive events are aversive. A government which makes the least use of its power to punish is most likely to reinforce our behavior in supporting it."

    Excerpts taken from: 1Skinner, B.F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2Skinner. B. F. (1956). A debate with Carl Rogers. Science, 124, 1057-1066. 3Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillian.

  3. Skinner denies the existence of thoughts, emotions and feelings.

    "There is room in a behavioristic analysis for a kind of knowing short of action and hence short of power. One need not be actively behaving in order to feel or to introspectively observe certain states normally associated with behavior. To say, "I know a sea lion when I see one, " is to report that one can identify a sea lion but not that one is now doing so."

    "Emotions are Not Causes...As long as we conceive of the problem of emotion as one of inner states, we are not likely to advance a practical technology. It does not help in the solution of a practical problem to be told that some feature ofa man's behavior is due to frustration or anxiety; we also need to be told how the frustration or anxiety has been induced and how it may be altered."

    Excerpts taken from: 1Skinner, B.F. (1974). About behaviorism. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillian.

  4. Skinner disavows all theory.

    "Behavior can only be satisfactorily understood by going beyond the facts themselves. What is needed is a theory of behavior, but the term theory is in such bad repute that I hasten to explain. Psychology has had them more recently, and they have suffered in the light of our improved understanding of scientific method... Facts and theories do not stand in opposition to each other. The relation, rather, is this: theories are based upon facts; they are statements about organizations of facts...

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1947). Current trends in experimental psychology (1947). Current trends in psychology. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 16-49.

  5. Skinner advocates the use of punishment.

    "Extinction is an effective way of removing an operant from the repertoire of an organism. It should not be confused with other procedures designed to have the same effect. The currently preferred technique is punishment, which...involves different processes and is of questionable effectiveness."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillian.

  6. Skinner's theory leaves meaningless such concepts as ethics, morals, or values.

    "Almost everyone makes ethical and moral judgments but this does not mean that the human species has "an inborn need or demand for ethical standards." (We could say as well that we have an inborn need or demand for unethical behavior, since almost everyone behaves unethically at some time or other.) Man has not evolved as an ethical or moral animal. He has evolved to the point at which he has constructed an ethical or moral culture." 

    "To make a value judgement by calling something good or bad is to classify it in terms of its reinforcing effects."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. new york: Alfred A. Knopf.

  7. Skinner ignores the uniqueness of the individual

    "The individual is at best a locus in which many lines of development come together in a unique set. His unique genetic product, as unique as that classic mark of individuality, the fingerprint. And even within the most regimented culture every personal history is unique."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. new york: Alfred A. Knopf.

  8. Skinner fails to acknowledge the existence of conscious experience

    "We are aware of what we are doing when we describe the topography of our behavior. We are aware of why we are doing it when we describe relevant variables, such as important aspects of the occasion or the reinforcement."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingencies of reinforcement: A theoretical analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall

  9. Skinner would entirely replace teachers with teaching machines

    "...we are on the verge of a new educational "method"--a new pedagogy--in which the teacher will emerge as a skilled behavioral enginneer. He will be able to analyze the contingencies which arise in his classes, and design and set up improved versions. He will know what is to be done and will have the satisfaction of knowing that he has done it."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1969). Contingency management in the classrom. Education, 90, 93-100

  10. Skinner is averse to clinical psychology

    "A conception of human behavior based primarily on clinical information and practice will undoubtedly differ from a conception emanating from the laboratory. This does not mean that either is superior to the other, or that eventually a common formulation will not prove useful to both."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1956). What is Psychotic Behavior? Theory and treatment of the psychoses: Some newer aspects. F. Gildea, Editor. St. Louis: Committee on Publications, Washington University, 77-99.

  11. Skinner's theory robs behavior of its meaning and purpose

    "To say that....behaviors have different "meanings" is only another way of saying that they are controlled by different variables."

    Excerpts taken from: Skinner, B.F. (1966). An operant analysis of problem solving. Problem solving: Research, method and theory, B. Kleinmuntz, editor, New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 225-257.

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