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17.3: Scientific Analysis of Behavior and Personality

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    Late in Skinner’s life (in 1988 to be exact), his former graduate student A. Charles Catania had this to say:

    Of all contemporary psychologists, B. F. Skinner is perhaps the most honored and the most maligned, the most widely recognized and the most misrepresented, the most cited and the most misunderstood. (pg. 3; Catania & Harnad, 1988)

    Skinner emphasized, above all else, approaching human behavior scientifically. However, he acknowledged that human behavior is complex, and that our familiarity with it makes it difficult for us to be truly objective. In addition, he recognized that many people find it offensive to suggest that human behavior can be understood and predicted in terms of environmental stimuli and their consequences. Still, Skinner took the scientific approach very seriously, and he knew that science is about more than just determining a set of facts or principles. In Science and Human Behavior (Skinner, 1953), Skinner wrote that:

    Science is concerned with the general, but the behavior of the individual is necessarily unique. The “case history” has a richness and flavor which are in decided contrast with general principles…A prediction of what the average individual will do is often of little or no value in dealing with a particular individual…The extraordinary complexity of behavior is sometimes held to be an added source of difficulty. Even though behavior may be lawful, it may be too complex to be dealt with in terms of law. (pp. 20-21; Skinner, 1953)

    Given this complexity, Skinner focused on “cause” and “effect” relationships in behavior. In common use, these terms have come to carry a meaning far beyond the original intention. For Skinner, a cause is a change in an independent variable, whereas an effect is a change in a dependent variable. Skinner argued that the terms cause and effect say nothing about how a cause leads to an effect, but rather, only that there is a specific relationship in specific order. If we can discover and analyze the causes, we can predict behavior; if we can manipulate the causes, then we can control behavior (Skinner, 1953). By focusing entirely on observable behavior, Skinner felt that psychologists have an advantage, in that they will not waste time and effort pursuing either inner psychic forces or external social forces that may not even exist. Focusing on actual behavior is simply more direct and practical. Before examining some of the larger implications of this approach, however, let’s review the basic principles of operant conditioning as defined by Skinner.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    Skinner emphasized a scientific approach to the study of behavior, in part, because individual behavior is so unique. Understanding what the average person might do may tell us nothing about a certain individual. However, a science of personality that treats everyone as unique seems to become hopelessly complex, because we must study everyone individually. Does this really seem like a scientific approach, and whether it is or not, can it really help us to understand other people?

    Principles of Operant Conditioning

    Operant conditioning begins with a response, known as an operant, which has some effect in the organism’s environment. These responses have consequences that determine whether or not the probability of the response will increase or decrease in the future. Reinforcers increase the probability of a given response that precedes them, whereas punishers decrease the probability of a response that precedes them. In common terms we might say that good consequences increase behaviors, or that the behavior is rewarded. However, Skinner avoids words like reward due to their psychological implications, preferring instead to use the technical term reinforcer (Holland & Skinner, 1961; Skinner, 1953).

    Both reinforcement and punishment come in two forms: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement involves the application, or administration, of a favorable consequence to a response. For example, when a child cleans their room, they receive some money as an allowance. The response of cleaning the room results in the application of a tangible reinforcer: money. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an aversive or noxious stimulus. We are commonly told not to scratch itchy bug bites, because we might get them infected. However, an itch is a very noxious stimulus, and it is not easy to ignore them. When we finally give in and scratch, the itching goes away (at least for a while). The response of scratching is negatively reinforced by the removal of the noxious stimulus (no more itching). In both of these examples, the response (the operant of room cleaning or scratching) is followed by a consequence (reinforcement) that increases the likelihood that we will clean our room or scratch our itchy bug bite.

    Punishment can also be positive or negative. If a child misbehaves and is spanked, that is a positive punishment. In other words, an aversive consequence is applied (the spanking) as a result of the misbehavior. With negative punishment, favorable stimuli are withdrawn. For example, a child who misbehaves receives a time-out, thus removing them from toys, playmates, snacks, etc. Other common examples of a negative punishment are being grounded or losing privileges (such as television or video games). Once again, in positive punishment the response (misbehavior) results in the application of an aversive stimulus (a spanking), whereas in negative punishment the response misbehaving results in the removal of favorable consequences (loss of privileges). One of the most common mistakes that psychology students make is to confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. This is understandable, because of the use of the word “negative.” So it is essential to determine first whether a consequence is a reinforcer or a punisher. Then determine whether the reinforcer is positive or negative, or whether the punisher is positive or negative. It is also generally accepted that punishment is not as effective as reinforcement, and it is more difficult to precisely control the cause-effect relationship (Skinner, 1953, 1974, 1987). This is partly due to discriminative stimuli, which signal the contingencies that may be in effect at a given time. In other words, the presence or absence of a parent (a discriminative stimulus) may determine whether one will be punished for a given response (if the cat’s away, the mice will play). In addition, the possibility always exists that punishment can cross the line into abuse (physical and/or emotional). As Skinner noted, science is not just about the facts, there is always something more. In theory punishment may seem equivalent to reinforcement, but in practical matters, such as raising children, every situation may require a more detailed analysis.

    In order to reliably measure the behavior of animals (typically rats or pigeons) in his laboratory, Skinner built a special piece of equipment commonly known as a Skinner box (though its technical name is an operant conditioning chamber). This apparatus allowed for the precise measurement of how subjects responded over time under varying conditions, and produced a special measure of behavior known as a cumulative record. Although continuous reinforcement is certainly effective for increasing behavior, in most situations we are not reinforced every time we engage in a certain behavior. Skinner identified four basic schedules of reinforcement, based on variations in the number of responses necessary for reinforcement, so-called ratio schedules, or the time intervals between making reinforcers available, so-called interval schedules. Both ratio and interval schedules can be either fixed or variable.

    Although the principles of reinforcement may seem relatively straightforward, they can lead to either complex or odd behavior. Complex behavior can be developed with operant conditioning through the process of shaping. Shaping involves reinforcing chains of behavior in a specific sequence, with each change being relatively small and, therefore, relatively simple. As a result, complex behavior can be explained in terms of shaping a series of simple changes in behavior. As Skinner describes it:

    Operant conditioning shapes behavior as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay. Although at some point the sculptor seems to have produced an entirely novel object, we can always follow the process back to the original undifferentiated lump, and we can make the successive stages by which we return to this condition as small as we wish. At no point does anything emerge which is very different from what preceded it. (pg. 91, Skinner, 1953)

    Sometimes, however, this process goes awry. When an individual accidentally associates a consequence with a response, even though no actual relationship existed, superstitious behavior can result. For example, if you provide a few seconds of access to food for a hungry pigeon every 20 seconds, regardless of what the pigeon is doing at the time, the pigeon will develop some form of food-getting ritual. Since the food is delivered regardless of what the pigeon does, the ritual that develops is superstitious. The development of superstition in humans is believed to follow the same principles (Skinner, 1953, 1987). For a straightforward description of the principles of operant conditioning, and the prime example of how Skinner believed these principles might be applied to education, see the programmed instruction book entitled The Analysis of Behavior by Holland and Skinner (1961).

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{2}\)

    It has become commonly accepted, at least in psychology, that children should never receive positive punishment (e.g., a spanking). Instead, parents should use negative punishment (e.g., a timeout) and then redirect their child’s behavior in positive ways. How does this compare to how you were punished, and do you agree that this is always true?

    Personality Development

    Based upon the principles of operant conditioning, Skinner proceeded to address the full range of human behavior, including personality development, education, language, mental illness and psychotherapy, and even the nature of society itself.

    Skinner believed that the terms “self” and “personality” are simply ways in which we describe the characteristic patterns of behavior engaged in by an individual. Skinner also referred to the self as “a functionally unified system of responses” (Skinner, 1953), or “at best a repertoire of behavior imparted by an organized set of contingencies” (Skinner, 1974). Skinner acknowledges that critics of the science of behavior claim that behaviorists neglect the person or the self. However, Skinner claims that the only thing neglected is a vestige of animism, which in its crudest form attributes behavior to spirits. If behavior is disruptive, the spirit is a demon; if behavior is creative, the spirit is a muse or guiding genius (Skinner, 1974). Indeed, Skinner’s arguments describing the self sound quite similar to the Buddhist perspective we will examine later in this book:

    When a man jams his hands into his pockets to keep himself from biting his nails, who is controlling whom? When he discovers that a sudden mood must be due to a glimpse of an unpleasant person, who discovers whose mood to be due to whose visual response? Is the self which works to facilitate the recall of a name the same as the self which recalls it? When a thinker teases out an idea, is it the teaser who also eventually has the idea? (pg. 283; Skinner, 1953)

    If the self, or the personality, does not exist, but is instead simply a collection of behavioral attributes and functions, then it is an irrelevant concept that needs to be discarded. Skinner did not discount the value of Freud’s explanation of human behavior, since Skinner acknowledged that many sciences take time to develop. But now that behavioral science was advancing, according to Skinner, it became time to discard Freudian concepts of an unconscious mind and mental functioning. Curiously, this is very similar to the way in which Freud addressed religion: as something that had served its purpose in the course of human development, but which should now be discarded in favor of the science of psychoanalysis.

    Since no two people have exactly the same experiences (not even identical twins, who do share an identical genetic make-up), each individual is truly unique. When any one of us seems to have an experience of identity, a feeling of self, it always exists within the unique circumstances of our experiential contingencies, the reinforcers, punishers, discriminative stimuli, etc. that have determined our behavioral patterns. Thus, Skinner argues that we do have a unique individuality, but we are not an originating agent, not a self that decides to act a certain way. Instead, we are a locus, a point of convergence for genetic and environmental conditions which have come together and that will determine our next act (Skinner, 1974).


    Skinner’s theories have direct applications to education, particularly with regard to controlling classroom behavior and motivating students to learn. Indeed, when looking at the big picture, the challenges facing educators that Skinner wrote about in the 1970s sound very much like the challenges in education today (Skinner, 1978). Teachers are being asked to do more, to address new and different material in their classrooms, and schools face dwindling budgets and rising costs. A reasonable solution: make education more efficient.

    Skinner’s approach to increasing the efficiency of teaching was to rely on programmed instruction, either through teaching machines (see, e.g., Skinner, 1959) or specially designed books (e.g., Holland & Skinner, 1961). When I was a teaching assistant at Wayne State University in Detroit, we used The Analysis of Behavior by Holland and Skinner for laboratory sections of the learning course. It proved to be both efficient and effective. Unfortunately, however, programmed instruction is just that, a systematic program, and it takes up time that might otherwise allow for meaningful and stimulating relationships between professors and students. Interestingly, one of the strongest trends in higher education today is to shift from lecture-based classes to learner-centered education. But this is done with the intent of increasing the active participation of students within the classroom, not to isolate them in programmed instruction.

    In defense of Skinner’s approach, it is true that his simple teaching machines and books were only a start. Today we have access to marvelous educational programs on computer, and most of them are anything but boring. Some of the educational programs available for children are fascinating and fun games, and that may be wonderful for children. But is the same approach appropriate for college-level students? In time, perhaps, technology will bring us yet other innovative approaches that combine the best of programmed instruction and human interaction.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{3}\)

    Skinner proposed that education could be made more efficient and effective through the use of programmed learning and teaching machines. Have you ever experienced either of these approaches? Did you feel that you were getting the most out of your education in these situations?


    One of the most controversial areas to which Skinner applied his behavioral theories was that of language. It took Skinner over 20 years to write Verbal Behavior (Skinner, 1957), but in the end he presented an analysis of language in which he argued that even our most complex verbal behavior could be understood in terms of simple behavioral contingencies. Skinner began by considering whether there is any difference between speech and any other behavior. For example, what is the difference between using the word water when asking for a glass of water and using the arm to reach for that glass of water? In looking at the beginnings of verbal behavior in childhood, Skinner emphasized the simplicity of a young child’s early use of single words to convey meaning far beyond the particular word. For example, when a 2-year old says “cookie,” they are asking for, and expecting to receive, a cookie that they cannot get for themselves. Skinner referred to such simple one word utterances as a mand, which he said was short for several related concepts: command, demand, countermand, etc. When the child says “cookie,” they will then receive one (reinforcement) or they will not. If it is too close to dinner, or if the child has already been told no, the child may receive a loud “No!” (punishment). To make a long story short, all complex verbal behavior develops from this simple beginning, taking its more complex variations from the process of shaping, just like any other behavior.

    Perhaps even more controversial, Skinner assigned “thought” to the role of subaudible speech. In other words, thinking was nothing more than talking to one’s self, or behaving in the roles of both the speaker and the listener, but doing so without making any sounds out loud. As strange as it may sound to consider thought as nothing more than another behavior subject to reinforcement or punishment, if one is willing to accept Skinner’s theory on verbal behavior in the first place, he then makes a compelling argument:

    …speech is only a special case of behavior and subaudible speech a further subdivision. The range of verbal behavior is roughly suggested, in descending order of energy, by shouting, loud talking, quiet talking, whispering, muttering “under one’s breath,” subaudible speech with detectable muscular action, subaudible speech of unclear dimensions, and perhaps even the “unconscious thinking” sometimes inferred in instances of problem solving. There is no point at which it is profitable to draw a line distinguishing thinking from acting on this continuum. (pg. 438; Skinner, 1957).

    There are those, of course, who do not accept Skinner’s theory on verbal behavior. The renowned linguist Noam Chomsky published critical reviews of both Verbal Behavior and, later, Beyond Freedom & Dignity (Skinner, 1971). Bower and Hilgard (1981) consider Chomsky’s critiques to be perhaps the most effective in challenging Skinner’s viewpoint. Chomsky argued that our knowledge of a series of input-output relationships tells us nothing of behavior in general, but rather we should be examining the internal structure, states, and organization of the organism that produced these unique input-output relationships (the very concepts that Skinner rejected). Most importantly, rather than accepting that Skinner had taken an appropriate scientific approach, Chomsky felt that Skinner had placed unnecessary fetters on the scientific process. Chomsky also adopted the cognitive perspective that addresses whether a stimulus in the environment really exists in isolation from the individual. In other words, is the nature of a stimulus affected by the perception of the individual (e.g., how might a paranoid person react to a friendly greeting)? Attempts at supporting Skinner’s view and answering Chomsky’s critique have, according to Bower and Hilgard, simply failed to be effective or persuasive. And so, experimental psycholinguistics has remained with the general disciplines of linguistics and cognitive psychology, rather than becoming a branch of behavioral learning theory (Bower & Hilgard, 1981).

    Old Age and Walden Two

    Although much of our conditioning takes place during the early years of life, Skinner did not neglect the later years. However, he addressed issues of aging in a decidedly unscientific way, mostly by describing ways in which he had personally dealt with the intellectual challenges of aging. Skinner wrote about a variety of techniques he had found useful in dealing with forgetfulness, fatigue, and a lack of motivation (see Skinner, 1987). More importantly, however, was the need to prepare for old age when young. By preparing for old age, we can meet its challenges in the best possible health and frame of mind. In Enjoy Old Age, co-authored with Dr. Margaret Vaughan, one finds the following advice:

    Nevertheless, it is probably easier to be happy when you are young...We do not live in order to be old, and for young people to expect that “the best is yet to be” would be a great mistake. But what comes can be enjoyed if we simply take a little extra thought. (pg. 28; Skinner & Vaughan, 1983)

    In this relatively brief book, Skinner and Vaughan recommend a series of practical steps that one might take: do something about old age, keep in touch with the world, keep in touch with the past, think clearly, keep busy, have a good day, get along with people, feel better, recognize death as a necessary end, and play the role of old age with dignity. An important part of the latter step is to have a sense of humor. The realities of old age can be frustrating, but when you can laugh at the lighter side of these challenges, then everyone around you has the chance to feel better too (Skinner & Vaughan, 1983).

    Having addressed the full range of human life, Skinner also addressed the very nature of society itself. Actually, it was rather early in Skinner’s career that he wrote the controversial novel Walden Two (Skinner, 1948). And yes, this book was a novel, not a scientific study, though it certainly addresses Skinner’s scientific endeavors. Walden Two is about a utopia, a society based entirely on behavioral principles. Similar to the challenges Skinner faced in his failed attempt at a career as an author, Walden Two was rejected by two publishers, and it was accepted by Macmillan only when Skinner agreed to also write an introductory textbook for them. Few critics were impressed by the book, and it failed to sell for a dozen years. But eventually it did sell, and became a well known, if still controversial, book (Skinner, 1978). Skinner himself has written interesting reflections on Walden Two and its implications, including a fictional conversation between one of the characters and the late George Orwell (author of 1984; Skinner, 1978, 1987).

    Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Skinner’s behavioral, utopian society is that it has not remained fictional. At least two communities have been established based on the ideas presented in Walden Two. The first, established in 1967, is the Twin Oaks Intentional Community, located in rural Virginia ( The second, established in 1973, is Los Horcones, located in Sonora, Mexico ( Los Horcones has, among its many interesting programs, developed special education programs for developmentally delayed children, particularly those suffering from autism. Although both communities have been successful, they have found it difficult to expand.

    Mental Illness and Behavior Therapy

    Although the topics of mental illness and behavior therapy are better left to a course in abnormal psychology, let’s take a brief look at some of the more dramatic applications of Skinner’s theories to this important topic. Today, an important trend in psychology is community mental health, in which it is common for a team of mental health practitioners, including psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and mental health nurses, to come together and combine their unique specialties in the treatment of a variety of mental health issues. Following two conferences in 1953 and 1954, on the development and causes of mental disease, Skinner wrote that it is important for psychology to maintain a narrow focus, not an interdisciplinary one.

    Specifically, Skinner believed that psychologists should focus on the significant properties of “mental disease.” He describes the organism (or person) as being under the influence of hereditary and environmental influences, and engaging in behaviors. How we define these variables depends on our perspective. We can refer to genetic influences as instincts or, in humans, as traits and abilities. We can refer to environmental variables, both past and present, as memories, needs, emotions, perception, etc. But we do not have to interpret those factors we cannot observe, and Skinner felt it was not useful to do so (Skinner, 1959).

    Skinner did not actually reject the possibility of the existence of a mental apparatus, as described by Freud, but he did consider it outside the realm of psychological science. And as with complex verbal behavior, Skinner believed that if we could sufficiently break down the behavioral contingencies that underlie psychotic behavior, then we would be able to describe its significant properties in behavioral terms. This analysis may someday involve a more detailed understanding of what happens in the nervous system (and in the brain), but that analysis may appropriately belong in psychiatry and/or neurology, not in psychology (Skinner, 1959).

    Skinner felt that mental illness centered on issues of control, and the development of abnormal contingencies in the control of behavior. Most people fear control, and Skinner posed the somewhat amusing question: How often do psychotics have delusions about benevolent controllers? (pg. 234; Epstein, 1980). When faced with being controlled, under excessive conditions, individuals may attempt to escape, revolt, or resist passively. Given the complexity of human life, these behaviors can take many forms and can result in many emotional by-products, such as fear, anxiety, anger or rage, or depression (Skinner, 1953). When these conditions become maladaptive or dangerous, a need for psychotherapy arises. Skinner viewed psychotherapy as yet another form of control, but one in which the therapist creates a non-punishing situation that allows the patient to address problematic behaviors. The therapist and the patient can then work out programs that reduce occasions of punishment and increase occasions of reinforcement in the patient’s life. As such, Skinner considered psychotherapy to be somewhat the opposite of religion and governmental agencies, both of which tend to rely on punitive measures to control the behavior of people (Skinner, 1953).

    Through it all, Skinner was optimistic about the future of humanity, and he felt that behaviorism would help people to achieve their full potential. In this regard, he was similar to Freud, who felt that psychoanalysis was a fully scientific endeavor, which would also help to advance the development of humanity. The difference between these two great scientists of human behavior lies in how this might come about:

    An experimental analysis shifts the determination of behavior from autonomous man to the environment - an environment responsible both for the evolution of the species and for the repertoire acquired by each member…but we must remember that it is an environment largely of his own making. The evolution of a culture is a gigantic exercise in self-control…But no theory changes what it is a theory about; man remains what he has always been. And a new theory may change what can be done with its subject matter. A scientific view of man offers exciting possibilities. We have not yet seen what man can make of man. (pp. 214-215; Skinner, 1971)

    This page titled 17.3: Scientific Analysis of Behavior and Personality is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.