Illustration of Radical behaviorism

1938 Radical behaviorism

The book of science

Tom Sharp

B. F. Skinner psychology Illustration of Radical behaviorism

Radical behaviorism

B.F. Skinner felt that much behavior is learned and not inherited, that the study of behavior should be experimental, disregarding reported thoughts and feelings, that behaviors are reinforced by rewards and discouraged by punishments, and that free will is an illusion.

The Skinner box

Skinner called it the operant conditioning chamber. In it, Skinner would put a rat. When the rat, at first accidentally, moved a lever, a mechanism would deliver a pellet of rat food. To balance rewards with punishments, the box had a speaker, red and green lights, and an electrified floor able to shock the rat, but not kill it. The obvious finding was that the rat would learn to avoid the punishments and gain the rewards, but Skinner was also able to show that the learning would depend on the schedule of rewards and punishments. If your puppy pees on the rug, rub its nose in it right away; you want the pup to associate the punishment with the misbehavior.


Experience shows that people do not respond as uniformly as lab rats to attempts to control their behaviors. Experiments with humans would likely result in paradoxical outcomes, producing behaviors not in the subjects’ own interests. Even if a person and his language were predictable, his speech would not be predictable. Even if a poet were predictable, his poems would not be. Languages evolve; fashions change; the young do not want to be understood by the old; businesses and scientists strive for something new. Why don’t the same inputs always produce expected outputs? Are people bored of their own successes? Do too many things depend on the unexpected?

B. F. Skinner was the opposite of a humanist; however, he considered “private events” such as thinking and feeling to be forms of behavior worthy of scientific study, that is, subject to scientific control with the goal of improving society. In practice, in my opinion, cultural engineering fails because humans are not simple and scientists are not enlightened. Any power to control people for their own good would be controlled by people who are not entirely good, and who are not entirely unbiased.

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