Burrhus Frederic Skinner (B.F. Skinner) was born on March 20, 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. His father worked as an attorney for the Erie Railroad and his mother worked in volunteer civic organizations.
He graduated from high school and began studying writing at the Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. He was rather awkward in social situations and unable to fit in with other students. His younger brother Edward died that same year of a cerebral hemorrhage, adding to his difficulties.
He graduated in 1926 and began reading about psychology. He was fascinated by the theory of behaviorism, founded by John Watson. He decided to study psychology, entering the Harvard Graduate School's psychology program. It was there that he built his first "Skinner Box", which was essentially a box that measured the number of times a rat pressed a metal bar in order to receive food pellets. Using this device, he was able to conduct important studies in behavior.
Despite some small opposition to his research in the faculty, Skinner graduated in 1931 with a doctorate in psychology. He stayed there to continue his research until he was offered a teaching position at the University of Minnesota. He married his girlfriend Yvonne Blue and the two moved to Minneapolis.
Skinner began to expand and modify the theory of behaviorism to accommodate the results of his research. He developed the concept of operant conditioning, in which an organism performs actions that change the environment for the better or worse. The consequences of those actions cause conditioning in the organism, which can either reinforce or discourage the behavior.
Skinner believed that positive reinforcement was more effective than punishment in the long run. He also stated that any reinforcement must come immediately after the behavior so as to not confuse the organism.
Another important concept that Skinner developed was that of shaping. In shaping, an organism is taught a sequence of behavior in stages. For example, if a researcher was teaching a dog to climb a ladder, the dog would be rewarded upon reaching the first step and rewarded for each step after that. The technique was used to train animals to do a multitude of things, resulting in ping pong-playing pigeons and piano-playing chickens.
Skinner's research often shocked the public by challenging old ways of thinking. His most controversial idea was that humans had no individual choice, rather they were the product of the shaping of their environment since the day they were born.
His ideas have been used by psychologists for many years. Shaping has been largely used for treatment of phobias, in which a person is gradually exposed to the source of their phobia until it entirely disappears. Some of his ideas have been disproved, but he has greatly shaped the face of modern psychology.
Skinner died of leukemia on August 18, 1990.