B. F. Skinner, one of the most influential and controversial psychologists of the 20th Century, died Saturday of leukemia at a hospital near his home in Cambridge, Mass. He was 86 years old.
The dean of modern behaviorists, Burrhus Frederic Skinner--Fred to his friends--had his final paper, a defense of his behavioral theories, presented this month in Boston to a convention of 20,000 psychologists from around the world. He argued to the end that behavior is determined by an individual's surroundings and there is little or no "free will."
"I'm writing a paper which is my summing up of what psychology is all about and attacking cognitive psychologists," Skinner told the Associated Press shortly before the convention. "The cognitive psychologists won't like it, but that doesn't bother me at all.
"I will be dead in a few months," he added with a laugh. "But it hasn't given me the slightest anxiety or worry or anything; I always knew I was going to die."
Among the public at large, B. F. Skinner was perhaps less famous as one of the great names in psychology than as the man who taught pigeons to play table tennis and guide missiles--practical applications of his conditioning theories--and as the inventor of a mechanical baby tender in which his own daughter lived for 2 1/2 years and of the Skinner Box used in behavioral research. He was the author of both fiction and nonfiction in which he expounded his controversial views in clear and forceful prose.
Of some 16 books bearing Skinner's name, including a three-volume autobiography, perhaps the two best known were his utopian novel, "Walden Two," and "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," a nonfiction best seller in which he advocated forsaking individual freedom and dignity in favor of controlling human behavior to achieve a world free of war, pollution and other social evils.
He also pioneered teaching machines, demonstrating his first in 1954, and programmed learning.
Skinner, professor emeritus of psychology and social relations at Harvard, fathered the experimental analysis of behavior in which an organism's behavior was studied in a controlled laboratory environment.
In his theory of operant conditioning, Skinner held that behavior could be controlled by the skillful, systematic use of rewards--or positive reinforcers--to encourage desired responses. In other words, the environment could be manipulated to produce desirable behavior.
Skinner formulated his theories after studying rats and pigeons, but he maintained that these laws of behavior applied to all organisms, including man. Nor did he hesitate to extend these theories to other areas, including linguistics in "Verbal Behavior" (1957), teaching in "The Technology of Teaching" (1968) and finally to culture in "Beyond Freedom and Dignity" (1971).
His rejection of free will and his advocacy of behavioral engineering outraged religious leaders and others both within psychology and without. His critics were not mollified by his observation: "The organism whose behavior I observed most closely was myself."
He was dismissed by his critics, who included Arthur Koestler and Joseph Wood Krutch, as a "rat psychologist" or, worse, a totalitarian. Skinner, one critic said, confused people and pigeons. Krutch accused Skinner of dehumanizing people by "conditioning them into perfect virtue."
Skinner believed that these critics and even some of his friends profoundly misunderstood his ideas. He did not want to control people, he maintained. He used the word control, he said, as an astronomer might do in speaking of the control one planet exercises on another.
"People were controlled by their physical and social environments, but that did not mean that any person should control them," he wrote in the third volume of his autobiography, "A Matter of Consequences."
Nor did Skinner, public perception to the contrary, advocate punishment. In fact, he disliked it and thought it an ineffective method of control because the punished does not so much seek to change his behavior as to avoid punishment. Skinner thought positive reinforcement, or rewards, would work better and with fewer unhappy side effects.
Although Skinner could be critical of himself--once noting: "I do not admire myself as a person. My successes do not override my shortcomings"--the criticism leveled at his theories bothered him to the point that eventually he could no longer read much of it. And during the controversy that enveloped him following the publication of "Beyond Freedom and Dignity," he suffered from angina.