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B. F. Skinner | Biography

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Early Life

Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner was born on March 20, 1904, to upper-middle-class parents in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. His father was a lawyer, and his mother was a gifted thinker and homemaker.

In his youth Skinner read about the Shakers, a Christian sect, and other communes, or alternative communities, and even visited the New York Oneida Community. The Shakers practiced celibacy and were firm about the separation of the sexes in work and family duties. The Oneida community practiced "complex marriage," shunning monogamy and marrying each other. Mothers raised children in the first few years of life; then the community as a whole contributed.

Skinner was very outgoing and studious, which led to his acceptance at Hamilton College, where he received his bachelor of arts degree in English. Being an atheist, Skinner was sometimes at odds with the college's religious underpinnings and its requirements for daily chapel service.

Work and Family

Skinner loved the power of words, so he tried his hand at poetry and fiction. He even lived an uninhibited life in Greenwich Village in New York City for a short time. While there he worked at a local bookshop and enjoyed parties where rum or gin was often present. Later he returned to school, this time Harvard, where he received his PhD in psychology in 1931. He stayed on as a researcher at Harvard until 1936, when he took a teaching position at the University of Minnesota.

While in Minneapolis, Skinner fell in love with and married Yvonne Blue, with whom he had two daughters. The younger daughter would become the first infant raised in an "air crib," a creation of Skinner's that resembled an aquarium. This appearance was the main reason the idea did not become widely popular.

Skinner took the position of chair of the Psychology Department at Indiana University in 1945. Before moving to Indiana, a psychology colleague of his, Alice Felt Tyler, sent him her book Freedom's Ferment (1944). This history of perfectionist societies, such as the Oneida community (which thought perfection could be achieved through sinless living, thereby creating a heaven on Earth), stimulated Skinner to begin taking notes regarding his own theories of human behavior. These notes would eventually lead to a novel. In 1945 he completed a novel titled The Sun Is But a Morning Star, a line taken from the last paragraph of American transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854).

Behavior Modification

In 1948 Skinner's alma mater Harvard invited him to return, so he relocated with his wife and children. Skinner was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology from 1958 until 1974. Edgar Pierce was the noted Harvard alumnus who helped endow the psychology department. Skinner remained on the faculty at Harvard until the end of his life.

While at Harvard, Skinner developed his theory of operant behavior. Operant behavior, or operant conditioning, as it is also called, is the process that takes place when a subject receives a "reinforcing stimulus" as the subject performs a usual activity. This stimulus can either motivate or dissuade the subject from continuing the particular behavior. Some aspects of this experimental model are "schedules of reinforcement," "shaping," and "negative reinforcement." "Shaping," for instance, is the process by which a given behavior is modified by rewarding certain smaller behaviors that will ultimately lead to an overall desired behavior.

The culmination of this model is "behavioral modification" or "b-mod." In short b-mod refers to the practice of using reinforcement to eliminate unwanted behavior and welcome acceptable behavior. In 1948 Skinner published The Sun Is But a Morning Star with a title change: Walden Two. In a preface to Walden Two, Skinner succinctly states his theory of behavior modification: "Behavior could be changed by changing its consequences." However, Skinner also admits in the preface at the time of publication the concept of behavioral modification was merely "science fiction." Walden Two is a fictional account of an experimental community based on Skinner's theories of behavior. The main character in the novel, Professor Burris, echoes Skinner, as both are psychologists and atheists.

In addition to being an atheist, Skinner was also a confirmed humanist, meaning he did not accept the need for spiritual guidance and believed a capacity for goodness and advancement lay within an individual. He was firm in his stance that "mentalistic constructs" like freedom, dignity, and self-determination were too subjective to be relevant. Therefore, these constructs should be diminished in importance in behavior modification. Instead, he felt only observable, objective qualities should receive attention.

Achievements and Legacy

Before passing away from leukemia, a blood cancer that hinders the body's ability to fight infection, on August 18, 1990, Skinner won numerous awards for his work. He was given the Howard Crosby Warren Medal from the Society of Experimental Psychologists in 1942, the Award for Distinguished Scientific Contributions from the American Psychological Association in 1958, and the Award for Lifetime Contributions to Psychology from the American Psychological Association in 1990. His work with animals and the process of shaping, which achieves desired behavior by rewarding acceptable incremental behavior, has been adapted to computer-based instruction. For instance his work led to the personalized system of instruction, also called PSI, which permits students to advance incrementally in coursework. In this way students must exhibit understanding of certain concepts or skills before advancing to higher levels.

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