Selected Moments of the 20th Century

A work in progress edited by Daniel Schugurensky
Department of Adult Education, Community Development and Counselling Psychology,
The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education of the University of Toronto (OISE/UT)


B.F. Skinner publishes The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis 

“As time goes by I may be glad I wrote it.”

                                                                                    ----B.F Skinner

B. F.Skinner’s first book The Behavior of Organisms was published in May of 1938 as a volume of the Century Psychology Series. The monograph contained more than 400 pages of his research, which was to become the theoretical and experimental foundations of ‘operant science’ and the “experimental analysis of behavior”. It received a largely negative response from Psychologists at the time, of which Skinner remarked, “a purely descriptive science is never popular” (Bjork, 1997). The experimental results and theoretical constructs reported in the book would eventually influence education and teaching, industry, mental health services, physical rehabilitation, behavioral medicine, animal training and many other disciplines and areas in society. Although the research reported was based on his work in the laboratory with white rats, the most radical implication of this new science of behavior was its potential social application. Skinner never doubted the fact that his principles could be applied to humans, however he remarked that his book was “nothing more than an experimental analysis of a representative sample of behavior. Let him extrapolate who will” (Skinner, 1938 p. 442).

Burrhus Frederick (“Fred”) Skinner was born on March 20, 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. He completed his undergraduate degree in English at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York. Upon graduation Fred attempted to write a novel with little success and decided to pursue studies in Psychology where he was introduced to Watson’s book Behaviorism and found himself intrigued with an empirical, scientific approach.  After reading Bertrand Russell’s book Philosophy (1927) with his references to mentalistic terms in behavioristic ways, Skinner referred to himself becoming an “instant behaviorist” (Skinner, 1988).  In his readings he also became interested in the work of the Russian Physiologist Ivan Pavlov who was studying conditioned reflexes at the time.

In the fall of 1928 Skinner was admitted to Harvard for post-graduate studies in Psychology. Skinner completed his Doctorate and stayed at Harvard for five more years continuing with his extensive research, which was to provide the material for The Behavior of Organisms. In 1936 he was offered a teaching job at the University of Minnesota and stayed there until 1945 during which time The Behavior of Organisms was published. He wrote his novel Walden Two during the summer of 1945 and moved to Indiana University where he was Professor and Chair of the Psychology Department. In1948 he returned to Harvard as Professor of Psychology. In 1953 he published Science and Human Behavior and in 1971 he published Beyond Freedom and Dignity, both of which were based on his research outlined in The Behavior of Organisms.  Skinner also worked extensively on education and programmed instruction. His book Verbal Behavior was published in 1957.

 Skinner officially retired in 1974 while actively continuing with his research and writing. He received numerous awards from Universities and Professional organizations, including “Humanist of the Year” in 1972 (Nye, 1992) of which he commented in his autobiography “If Humanism meant nothing more than the maximizing of personal freedom and dignity, then I was not a Humanist. If it meant trying to save the human species, then I was” (quoted in Nye, 1992). At the American Psychological Association (APA) annual conference in August, 1990 he received an unprecedented award of “Citation for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology”. He died a few days later at the age of 86 on August 18, 1990.  

“Of all contemporary Psychologists, B.F. Skinner is the most honored and the most maligned, the most widely recognized and the most mis-represented, the most cited and the most misunderstood.”   (A. Charles Catania, 1989)

The Behavior of Organisms was a landmark in the experimental analysis of behavior. It presented Skinner’s novel and controversial research method, data and analysis of the behavior and conditioning of the male white rat. The “lever-pressing” of the rat was identified as the “operant” which was a unit or class of behavior to be studied. This “operant was emitted without any readily identifiable eliciting stimulus, unlike Pavlov’s reflex. Skinner was interested in exploring the more complex kinds of behavior that were maintained through operant conditioning (as apposed to the reflex).  Through simple, yet powerful experimental procedures, Skinner demonstrated how operants came under the “control” of reinforcers and were conditioned. He demonstrated the orderly pattern of responding via the cumulative recorder, which plotted the cumulative number of responses over time. The changes in the slope of the cumulative record showed changes in the strength of the behavior. His “problem box”  (later named the “Skinner box” by Hull), provided the environment in which he would study the behavior of the rat. Many broad concepts familiar today may be extracted from his findings and discussion such as extinction, discrimination, satiation, reinforcement, negative reinforcement (then taken to mean punishment), generalization, shaping, chaining and conditioned reinforcement (Dinsmoor, 1995).   

Skinner’s ‘analysis’ had given rise to a technology of behavior. More than a decade of his laboratory research had contributed to the establishment of Psychology as a natural science along with biology, chemistry and physics (Smith and Woodward, 1996). Behavior was treated as scientific data in its own right. His approach emphasized the functional description of an observed behavior, which could be predicted and controlled through environmental manipulations such as reinforcement. Skinner defined this ‘radical behaviorism’ as “the philosophy of science of behavior treated as subject matter in its own right apart from internal explanations, mental or physiological” (Skinner, 1988).

The Behavior of Organisms was published more than sixty years ago and its tremendous impact and its legacy is evident. Over the years, Journals devoted to his science of behavior have flourished, associations have been formed, University and College Programs developed, and related works have been published. In Introductory Psychology textbooks Skinner is the second-most cited authority and The Behavior of Organisms is his second most cited work (Knapp, 1995).  In his article The Behavior of Organisms at 50, Skinner discussed the relevance of his first book 50 years after he wrote it. Retrospectively he sees it as having many by- products including the further development of the science and the writing of his books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. He saw his work as contributing to changing the future of a world in which “people will behave as if the future were acting now”, in other words people will act to stop “exhausting our resources”, “polluting the environment” and “prevent nuclear holocaust”. He called for  “surrogate contingencies of reinforcement” that would be put in place with the help of psychology “that is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science” (Skinner, 1988).

In his preface to the seventh printing of The Behavior of Organisms, Skinner notes that although the book is “out of date”, it is still viable and presents “a useful formulation of behavior supported by a selection of illustrated experiments”. He adds “It may also serve as a reminder that a promising conception of human behavior has been derived from an analysis which began with simple organisms in simple situations and moved on, but only as its growing power permitted, to the complexities of the world at large.” (Skinner, 1966). Indeed, this work and his extensive research and writing since its publication have contributed to Psychology in methodological, empirical and philosophical ways (Dinsmoor, J.,1995). Skinner’s scientific tradition of research and practice continues to flourish and the extrapolation to the world of human affairs and its social benefits is the ultimate goal and value of a science of behavior (Wiklander, 1996).


Benjamin, L. (Ed.). (1997) A History of Psychology: Original Sources and Contemporary            Research (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw –Hill.

Bjork, D. (1997) B. F. Skinner: A Life. Washington: American Psychological Association.

Catania, A.C., and Harnad, S. (Eds.)  (1989) The Selection of Behavior. The Operant Behaviorism of B.F.Skinner: Comments and Consequences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dinsmoor, J., In the Beginning… In Todd, J., and Morris, E., (Eds.) (1995) Modern Perspectives on B.F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press

Knapp, T. The Natural History of the Behavior of Organisms. In Todd, J., and Morris, E., (Eds.) (1995) Modern Perspectives on B.F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press. 

Nye, R. (1992) The Legacy of B.F.Skinner: Concepts and Perspectives, Controversies    and Misunderstandings. Belmont, California: Brooks /Cole.

Proctor, R., and Weeks, D. (1990) The Goal of B.F. Skinner and Behavior analysis. New    York: Springer-Verlag.

Skinner, B.F. (1938) The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis  New York: Appleton-Century

Skinner, B.F. (1966) Preface to the seventh printing. In The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. (7th printing)  New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Skinner, B.F. The Behavior of Organisms at Fifty. (1988) In Todd, J., and Morris, E., (Eds.) (1995) Modern Perspectives on B.F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Smith, L., and Woodward, W., (Eds.) (1996) B.F Skinner and Behaviorism in American Culture. London: Lehigh University Press

Todd, J., and Morris, E., (Eds.) (1995) Modern Perspectives on B.F. Skinner and Contemporary Behaviorism. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Wiklander, N., From Hamilton College to Walden Two: An Inquiry into B.F. Skinner’s Early Social Philosophy. In Smith, L., and Woodward, W., (Eds.) (1996) B.F Skinner and Behaviorism in American Culture. London: Lehigh University Press.

Prepared by Margaret Bissell (OISE/University of Toronto)

December 2001

Citation: Bissell, Margaret (2001). 1938: B.F. Skinner publishes The Behavior of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. In Daniel Schugurensky (Ed.), History of Education: Selected Moments of the 20th Century [online]. Available:  (date accessed).

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