B. F. Skinner

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The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (20 March 190418 August 1990) was an American behaviorist, author, inventor, baseball enthusiast, social philosopher and poet.

Quotes[edit]

Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.
It is the teacher's function to contrive conditions under which students learn. Their relevance to a future usefulness need not be obvious.
The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.
  • Society attacks early, when the individual is helpless.
    • Walden Two (1948), p. 95
  • The strengthening of behavior which results from reinforcement is appropriately called "conditioning". In operant conditioning we "strengthen" an operant in the sense of making a response more probable or, in actual fact, more frequent.
    • Science and Human Behavior (1953)
  • Let men be happy, informed, skillful, well behaved, and productive.
    • Freedom and the control of men (1955/1956) American Scholar, 25 (1), 47-65
  • Education is what survives when what has been learned has been forgotten.
    • "New methods and new aims in teaching", in New Scientist, 22(392) (21 May 1964), pp.483-4
  • We shouldn't teach great books; we should teach a love of reading. Knowing the contents of a few works of literature is a trivial achievement. Being inclined to go on reading is a great achievement.
    • As quoted in B. F. Skinner : The Man and His Ideas (1968) by Richard Isadore Evans, p. 73
  • The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do. The mystery which surrounds a thinking machine already surrounds a thinking man.
    • Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis (1969)
  • Ethical control may survive in small groups, but the control of the population as a whole must be delegated to specialists—to police, priests, owners, teachers, therapists, and so on, with their specialized reinforcers and their codified contingencies.
    • Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971), p. 155
  • We admire people to the extent that we cannot explain what they do, and the word "admire" then means "marvel at."
    • Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)
  • A person who has been punished is not thereby simply less inclined to behave in a given way; at best, he learns how to avoid punishment.
    • Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971)
  • It is a mistake to suppose that the whole issue is how to free man. The issue is to improve the way in which he is controlled.
    • "I have been misunderstood" An interview with B.F.Skinner, Center Magazine (March/April 1972), pp. 63
  • Many instructional arrangements seem "contrived", but there is nothing wrong with that. It is the teacher's function to contrive conditions under which students learn. Their relevance to a future usefulness need not be obvious.
    It is a difficult assignment. The conditions the teacher arranges must be powerful enough to compete with those under which the student tends to behave in distracting ways.
    • "Free and Happy Student" in The Phi Delta Kappan (September 1973); later published in Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978)
  • I do not admire myself as a person. My successes do not override my shortcomings.
    • Journal of Humanistic Psychology (Spring 1991) Vol. 31 No. 2, p. 112
  • The way positive reinforcement is carried out is more important than the amount.
    • As quoted in Meditations for Parents Who Do Too Much (1993) by Jonathon Lazear and Wendy Lazear, p. 5
  • It has always been the task of formal education to set up behavior which would prove useful or enjoyable later in a student's life.
    • As quoted in Performance-based Assessment for Middle and High School Physical Education (2002) by Jacalyn Lea Lund and Mary Fortman Kirk, p. 165
  • I did not direct my life. I didn’t design it. I never made decisions. Things always came up and made them for me. That’s what life is.
    • As quoted in "Unpacking the Skinner Box : Revisiting B. F. Skinner through a Postformal Lens" by Dana Salter in The Praeger Handbook of Education and Psychology Vol. 4 (2008) edited by Joe L. Kincheloe and Raymond A. Horn, Ch. 99, p. 872

Quotes about Skinner[edit]

Suppose that an engineer is presented with a device whose functioning he does not understand, and suppose that through experiment he can obtain information about input-output relations of this device. He would not hesitate, if rational, to construct a theory of the internal states of the device and to test it against further evidence. ... By objecting, a priori, to this research strategy, Skinner merely condemns his strange variety of “behavioral science” to continued ineptitude. ~ Noam Chomsky
Sorted alphabetically by author or source
  • I have heard the lies before, but seeing them in black and white in a respected Sunday newspaper felt as if somebody had punched me hard in the stomach. Admittedly, the facts of my unusual upbringing sound dodgy: esteemed psychologist BF Skinner, who puts rats and pigeons in experimental boxes to study their behaviour, also puts his baby daughter in a box. This is good fodder for any newspaper. … The early rumours were simple, unembellished: I had gone crazy, sued my father, committed suicide. My father would come home from lecture tours to report that three people had asked him how his poor daughter was getting on. I remember family friends returning from Europe to relate that somebody they had met there had told them I had died the year before. The tale, I later learned, did the rounds of psychology classes across America. One shy schoolmate told me years later that she had shocked her college psychology professor, who was retelling the rumour about me, by banging her fist on her desk, standing up and shouting, "She's not crazy!"
    Slater's sensationalist book rehashes some of the old stuff, but offers some rumours that are entirely new to me. … My early childhood, it's true, was certainly unusual — but I was far from unloved. I was a much cuddled baby. Call it what you will, the "aircrib" ,"baby box", "heir conditioner" (not my father's term) was a wonderful alternative to the cage-like cot. My father's intentions were simple, and based on removing what he and my mother saw as the worst aspects of a baby's typical sleeping arrangements: clothes, sheets and blankets. These not only have to be washed, but they restrict arm and leg movement and are a highly imperfect method of keeping a baby comfortable.
  • I loved my father dearly. He was fantastically devoted and affectionate. But perhaps the stories about me would never have started if he had done a better job with his public image. He believed that, although our genes determine who we are, it is mostly our environment that shapes our personality. A Time Magazine cover story ran the headline "BF Skinner says we can't afford freedom". All he had said was that controls are an everyday reality — traffic lights and a police force, for instance — and that we need to organise our social structures in ways that create more positive controls and fewer aversive ones. As is clear from his utopian novel, Walden Two, the furthest thing from his mind was a totalitarian or fascist state.
    His careless descriptions of the aircrib might have contributed to the public's common misconception as well. He was too much the scientist and too little the self-publicist — especially hazardous when you are already a controversial figure.
    • Deborah Skinner Buzan, in "I was not a lab rat" in The Guardian (12 March 2004)
  • Suppose that an engineer is presented with a device whose functioning he does not understand, and suppose that through experiment he can obtain information about input-output relations of this device. He would not hesitate, if rational, to construct a theory of the internal states of the device and to test it against further evidence. ... By objecting, a priori, to this research strategy, Skinner merely condemns his strange variety of “behavioral science” to continued ineptitude.
  • For practical or theoretical reasons, dictators, Organization Men and certain scientists are anxious to reduce the maddening diversity of men's natures to some kind of manageable uniformity. In the first flush of his Behaviouristic fervour, J. B. Watson roundly declared that he could find "no support for hereditary patterns of behaviour, nor for special abilities (music, art, etc.) which are supposed to run in families." And even today we find a distinguished psychologist, Professor B.F. Skinner of Harvard, insisting that, "as scientific explanation becomes more and more comprehensive, the contribution which may be claimed by the individual himself appears to approach zero. Man's vaunted creative powers, his achievements in art, science and morals, his capacity to choose and our right to hold him responsible for the consequences of his choice — none of these is conspicuous in the new scientific self-portrait.
  • When you start thinking about art and creativity, rationality is not big enough to contain it all. Otherwise you end up at a B.F. Skinner hypothesis where it is all purely to do with stimulus and response. B. F. Skinner actually put forward — and this is a measure of scientific desperation over consciousness — the idea that consciousness was a weird vibrational by-product of the vocal cords. That we did not actually think. We thought we thought because of this weird vibration caused by the vocal cords. This shows the lengths that hard science will go to to banish the ghost from the machine.
  • There are occasions when a worthless, insignificant book acquires significance as a scrap of litmus paper exposing a culture's intellectual state. Such a book is Beyond Freedom and Dignity by B.F. Skinner…. The book itself is like Boris Karloff's embodiment of Frankenstein's monster: a corpse patched with nuts, bolts and screws from the junkyard of philosophy (Pragmatism, Social Darwinism, Positivism, Linguistic Analysis, with some nails by Hume, threads by Russell, and glue by the New York Post). The book's voice, like Karloff's, is an emission of inarticulate, moaning growls — directed at a special enemy: "Autonomous Man."
    • Ayn Rand, The Ayn Rand Letter, Vol. 1, No. 8 (17 January 1972)

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