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B.F. Skinner and the Hopelessness of It All

B.F. Skinner understood human behavior like no other psychologist ever has

B.F. Skinner is not nearly as famous as Freud, and if you Google his name you won't find nearly as many hits as you will even for Jean Piaget. And yet it could be argued that his influence on childrearing, management, education, and self-help goes well beyond both of those fellow 20th century greats. (For example, how many people realize that when they use "time-out" with a child, this is based on Skinner's work?) I often wonder why Skinner is not more famous -- I still meet people who have never heard of him -- and I can probably come up with many reasons. But the case can be made that his view of human behavior, even though it fell short in certain very important areas, can better explain the world and its problems than any other, and offer some of the best solutions for solving these problems as well.

Sadly, however, taken to its logical conclusion, it does not present a comforting picture for our planet.

I had the privilege of taking a seminar with Skinner in the fall of 1963. I was a first-year graduate student in psychology at Harvard, and, at 20, was not only pretty ignorant in the ways of the world, but pretty ignorant about psychology. I had not been a psychology major in college; in fact, I hadn't taken any psychology until my senior year, when I took General Psych and then two more courses. Amazingly, in that last year of college, I had found my calling. And so I was very excited to be going to the place where I could take a class with "America's pre-eminent psychologist" (to use the words in the first sentence of Dava Sobel's front page obituary in the New York Times on August 20, 1990).

I signed up for his "Advanced Analysis of Behavior," which was pretty bold (or stupid) on my part, since I had never had a course in the elementary analysis of behavior. There were only about six students in the class, all of whom were older than me, and some of whom were obviously extremely bright. But as bright as they were, Skinner was brighter. He would challenge the people in the class to come up with non-behavioral explanations for phenomena, and then show every time how his principles could explain them more simply.

I sensed that I was in the presence of genius. We all did. And like all the greats in the sciences - including the social sciences - a major part of his genius was to explain things in the simplest way possible. And the basic principle he adhered to, the very simple one that says that what we do is largely a function of the consequences of our behavior, can explain almost everything.

For example, all kinds of theories have tried to account for the addictive effects of gambling, but, for slot machines at least, it's as simple as why white rats may press furiously on a lever in a Skinner box. Both are programmed to provide reinforcement on what's called a variable ratio schedule: a reward occurring, say, every fifth or tenth response, on the average. This leads to a high rate of responding, and the human being in the casino is behaving exactly like the rat or pigeon in the Skinner box. (Incidentally, he always felt uncomfortable when someone used that term in his presence and would say, "You mean operant conditioning chamber.")

Skinner became financially comfortable from fellowships, writings, speeches, and the like, but the owners of casinos make a fortune using behavioral principles to keep people -- many of them not well off financially -- pressing levers. Incidentally, this is just one of many examples of behavioral principles being used well before they were formalized. The slot machine was invented in 1895, some nine years before Skinner was born.

Perhaps this reflects one reason Skinner has not received the fame he deserves. Much of what he systematized in his theories was already used by successful businessmen, salespeople, animal trainers, teachers and the like. Yet this in no way takes away from its importance. In many ways, much of modern psychology has formalized and refined what people already implicitly knew. To make the implicit explicit is no small feat.

One summer about 20 years ago, I was working with a graduate student on a project involving young children with behavioral problems. Though we didn't talk much about Skinner, we were recommending the use of techniques that were clearly modeled on his research.

She was a woman of about 40, involved in theater as much as she was in psychology, and she did not find his work to be especially exciting or inspiring.This is understandable when we realize that Skinner felt drama had little place in the life well-lived. There were ways to live life well; so, Skinner asked, why not use them?

One day, I was freshly struck by Skinner's importance, and said something to that effect.

She replied, "Oh, Skinner. He just notices and defines what works." She said it as if it were trivial. But it could be argued that in all of human endeavor, there is nothing more important.

The principles that Skinner demonstrated and defended so well work all the time, whether or not they are being used intentionally, say by parents or managers or -- as is most often the case -- unintentionally, in the everyday life of all living organisms. The basic principle of reinforcement (and punishment) -- which states that the frequency of a behavior is strongly affected by its immediate consequences -- is necessary for us to survive and flourish. It can help to explain how we learn almost any skill and how we learn not to touch hot stoves; and it can explain (or at least help to explain) why a kiss can be the first step toward a long and happy marriage.

But the principle of reinforcement has its dark side, and it is one that constantly threatens our long-term well-being. A kiss that is warmly reciprocated may ultimately lead to a long and wonderful relationship. But it can also lead to a relationship that will threaten your emotional well-being or perhaps destroy your marriage. And on a more everyday level, people eat foods that are ultimately bad for them, drink too much, smoke cigarettes, and use illicit drugs because the immediate positive feelings are so powerful.

One of the catch phrases of the '60s was "If it feels good, do it." But the reality is that this is what we and all the other animals have done since sentient life began. For example, if sex didn't feel so incredibly good, at least for men, our species would have died out long ago.

Sex is primordial, as is eating. We have done them over the millennia, and our animal cousins do them as well. But immediate reinforcement works with modern technology just the way it has worked with basic survival behaviors. How can I keep using a horse to get around when those new-fangled automobiles are so much faster and easier to take care of? Sure, telephone access to the Internet was fine 15 years ago, but now how can I wait 30 seconds for that page to download when with cable I can download it in two seconds? And yet, as with all our other behaviors, the fact that something is immediately reinforcing does not mean it is good for us or our society in the long run. We don't know for sure whether or not the computer will, over time, do more harm than good, but we are beginning to see that cars could well be the single biggest contributor to the ultimate destruction of life on Earth.

It's an uphill battle. We drink, we drug, we have sex with the wrong people, and we spend hours in front of television screens, all because it feels good at the moment. Think about this: For many millions of Americans, one of the most common behaviors is "watching." True, it's not as harmful as drinking too much and it isn't destroying the planet, but it's not exactly a fulfillment of human potential either.

Sadly, the truth that Skinner saw finally made him very pessimistic about the future of the world. The headline of a New York Times article reporting on an interview with him in September 1981, when he was 77, read "B. F. Skinner Now Sees Little Hope for the World's Salvation." Keep in mind that this was nearly 30 years ago, well before such problems as terrorism and global warming had become household terms. But, as the article states, "the problems of overpopulation, pollution, energy depletion, and other environmental hazards (already) cast a pall over the future." Skinner felt that "the only hope...would be to get people to act on predictions of future conditions..." However, since he felt strongly that "the environment shapes people's actions," and "the future does not exist, how can it affect contemporary human behavior?"

He goes on to say the only solution would be to "somehow persuade people ... that their very survival might depend on their actions right now." And he follows with words that are as true and as chilling today as they were when I first read them: "You can't get four-and-a-half billion people to change [and today that's 6.8 billion]. Those few who do respond to the dire conditions of the future - journalists, environmentalists, behavioral scientists tend not to be powerful. So we go to the powerful people: leaders in religion, government and industry. But these people are concerned with the present: the Pope is interested in saving souls; the governors in re-election and the tycoons in profits."

He expressed some hope that young people could be educated about these long-term concerns and that some would "become the leaders." But finally, "believ(ing) so strongly in his own theory that people react rather than initiate, (he) finally concludes that people will not act to preserve the world until it is ‘too late - I don't see any hope for it.'"

Of course, people could argue that there are groups all over the place working to solve the world's problems, but his comments about those in power and what motivates them still ring true today. And in terms of politicians responding to the population's concerns, it is far from comforting to see climate change ranked last among five concerns in a recent Pew Research poll.… priorities are, in order: jobs, the country's energy needs, immigration, regulating the country's financial institutions, and addressing climate change.

In a 2006 Times article on national priorities, where global warming also ranked low, Helen Ingram, a professor of planning, policy and design at the University of California, Irvine, is quoted as saying that "problems that get attention are ‘soon, salient and certain.'"

There is no question that an issue like jobs is a very major problem. But ultimately, the global environment trumps all other issues. Eventually, global warming will be so "soon, salient and certain" that even governments will act to deal with it. But, as Skinner said about the world's problems back in 1981, it may then be too late. Actually, that 2006 article, which was titled "Yelling ‘Fire' on a Hot Planet," talks about some who say the only practical solution right now is to adapt to a warmer planet.

That same article quotes David G. Hawkins, "who directs the climate program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, a private group. ‘I wish I were more optimistic of our ability to get a broad slice of the public to understand this and be motivated to act,' he says. In an e-mail message, he wrote: ‘We are sensory organisms; we understand diesel soot because we can smell it and see it. Getting global warming is too much of an intellectual process. Perhaps pictures of drowning polar bears (which we are trying to find) will move people but even there, people will need to believe that those drownings are due to our failure to build cleaner power plants and cars.' "

Could Skinner have said it any better himself?

I try to be more optimistic than my teacher of long ago, and I know that human creativity in the solving of problems knows no bounds. But when the pessimistic words of a genius lodge in your head, they're a tough hurdle for your hope to leap across.

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