Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations

What was B.F. Skinner really like? A new study parses his traits

Date:
March 20, 2012
Source:
Association for Psychological Science
Summary:
Besides Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner was the most famous and perhaps the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. But who was Skinner? Psychologists have now use source materials and standard measures of personality traits to describe him and compare him with other eminent scientists. Their study reveals a complex man -- but nothing like the monster his detractors called him.

March 20th marks the birthday of famed behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner, who would have turned 108 today. Besides Sigmund Freud, B.F. Skinner was the most famous and perhaps the most influential psychologist of the 20th century. But his own "radical behaviorism" -- the idea that behavior is caused solely by environmental factors, never by thoughts or feelings -- made him a magnet of controversy, which grew even more intense with the publication of his best-known book, Beyond Freedom & Dignity.

"He was looked at as beyond the pale by a lot of other psychologists, including me," says Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist at the University of California Davis, who was a graduate student at Harvard when Skinner taught there. Some even called Skinner a fascist for his radical views of human malleability. But, says Simonton, "people who knew him would also say, 'You really should talk to Skinner, because he's a much broader, more open person than you think.'"

Who was B.F. Skinner? University of Oslo psychologists Geir Overskeid and Cato Grψnnerψd, along with Simonton, used a variety of source material plus an instrument that scores people on five major personality factors, to describe him and compare him with other eminent scientists. The study, which appears in Perspectives in Psychological Science, a journal published by the Association for Psychological Science, reveals a complex man -- but nothing like the monster his detractors called him.

To draw an objective picture of Skinner, the psychologists first combed through published sources both biographical and autobiographical, archival material, and sketches written by people who knew him. From these they culled 118 descriptive words and phrases, from "fanatic" to "afraid of the police." Five raters blind to the subject's identity categorized each descriptor under the Big Five traits that psychologists use to describe personality -- Openness, Conscientiousness, Agreeableness, Extroversion, and Neuroticism -- and assigned to the descriptor a degree from -2 to +2. The authors chose the 81 descriptors on which four of the five raters agreed; there was almost complete agreement as to degree.

The results: Skinner was highly conscientious -- scoring 1.8 -- working tirelessly and meticulously toward ambitious goals. Indeed, he wrote that he aimed to remake the "entire field of psychology" and viewed relaxation as dangerous. And those Harvard students were right about Skinner's openness to experience. Besides being a psychologist, he painted, wrote a novel, played saxophone and piano, and enjoyed all kinds of music. He was also somewhat neurotic and extroverted: known as charming, funny -- and a womanizer.

In many respects, Skinner's is the profile of an eminent scientist -- for his drive and discipline, creative versatility, and also for his neuroticism, a trait shared by as many as 45% of leading scientists, according to one analysis. What the profile does not represent: an evil authoritarian. "This article makes Skinner more human," says Simonton -- not just a "consolidation" of traits but also an array of nuanced detail. Though objective, it's not "a polarizing treatment. You don't have to love or hate him."

To learn more about B.F. Skinner, you can also read this profile and interview recently featured in the APS Observer.


Story Source:

The above story is based on materials provided by Association for Psychological Science. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. G. Overskeid, C. Gronnerod, D. K. Simonton. The Personality of a Nonperson: Gauging the Inner Skinner. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 2012; 7 (2): 187 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611434212

Cite This Page:

Association for Psychological Science. "What was B.F. Skinner really like? A new study parses his traits." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 20 March 2012. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120320161457.htm>.
Association for Psychological Science. (2012, March 20). What was B.F. Skinner really like? A new study parses his traits. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 29, 2014 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120320161457.htm
Association for Psychological Science. "What was B.F. Skinner really like? A new study parses his traits." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/03/120320161457.htm (accessed August 29, 2014).

Share This




More Mind & Brain News

Friday, August 29, 2014

Featured Research

from universities, journals, and other organizations


Featured Videos

from AP, Reuters, AFP, and other news services

Treadmill 'trips' May Reduce Falls for Elderly

Treadmill 'trips' May Reduce Falls for Elderly

AP (Aug. 28, 2014) — Scientists are tripping the elderly on purpose in a Chicago lab in an effort to better prevent seniors from falling and injuring themselves in real life. (Aug.28) Video provided by AP
Powered by NewsLook.com
Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Alice in Wonderland Syndrome

Ivanhoe (Aug. 27, 2014) — It’s an unusual condition with a colorful name. Kids with “Alice in Wonderland” syndrome see sudden distortions in objects they’re looking at or their own bodies appear to change size, a lot like the main character in the Lewis Carroll story. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Stopping Schizophrenia Before Birth

Stopping Schizophrenia Before Birth

Ivanhoe (Aug. 27, 2014) — Scientists have long called choline a “brain booster” essential for human development. Not only does it aid in memory and learning, researchers now believe choline could help prevent mental illness. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com
Personalized Brain Vaccine for Glioblastoma

Personalized Brain Vaccine for Glioblastoma

Ivanhoe (Aug. 27, 2014) — Glioblastoma is the most common and aggressive brain cancer in humans. Now a new treatment using the patient’s own tumor could help slow down its progression and help patients live longer. Video provided by Ivanhoe
Powered by NewsLook.com

Search ScienceDaily

Number of stories in archives: 140,361

Find with keyword(s):
 
Enter a keyword or phrase to search ScienceDaily for related topics and research stories.

Save/Print:
Share:  

Breaking News:
from the past week

In Other News

... from NewsDaily.com

Science News

Health News

Environment News

Technology News



Save/Print:
Share:  

Free Subscriptions


Get the latest science news with ScienceDaily's free email newsletters, updated daily and weekly. Or view hourly updated newsfeeds in your RSS reader:

Get Social & Mobile


Keep up to date with the latest news from ScienceDaily via social networks and mobile apps:

Have Feedback?


Tell us what you think of ScienceDaily -- we welcome both positive and negative comments. Have any problems using the site? Questions?
Mobile iPhone Android Web
Follow Facebook Twitter Google+
Subscribe RSS Feeds Email Newsletters
Latest Headlines Health & Medicine Mind & Brain Space & Time Matter & Energy Computers & Math Plants & Animals Earth & Climate Fossils & Ruins