Did B.F. Skinner contribute anything to Applied Behavior Analysis?

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By Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D

Founding Editor, bSci21.org

What exactly was B.F. Skinner’s contribution to Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA)?  That was the question asked by Ed Morris, Nathaniel Smith, and Deborah Altus in their article published in The Behavior Analyst.  

While Skinner founded the science of behavior, along with the philosophy of radical behaviorism, the authors noted “whether he was also the originator and founder of applied behavior analysis is, as yet, undetermined.”  The authors sought out an answer by reviewing Skinner’s work from 1930 until the founding of the Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis in 1968 — the date the authors determined to be the founding of ABA.

In their 30+ page review, the authors suggested that Skinner contributed to fundamental advances in the application of behavior analysis across five specific categories.  Moreover, the authors suggested that he utilized Baer, Wolf, and Risley’s seven dimensions of ABA — before they were explicitly articulated by the trio in 1968.

The five categories are:

Style and Content —  Skinner was interested in a pragmatic, practical, approach to behavior centered on its prediction and influence.  But he didn’t just talk about it — he demonstrated it experimentally via functional relations between behavior and environment with broad generality.  Additionally, Skinner didn’t set out to create a set of “tricks” or procedures — he set out to discover principles of behavior that underly any successful behavior change program.

Interpretations of Behavior — Some of his earliest behavioral interpretations of psychological events related to verbal behavior.   For example, the authors noted Skinner’s work analyzing patterns in everyday speech as well as the works of Shakespeare.  Other early interpretations related to visual perception and artistic taste, including behavioral processes likely involved in acquiring an appreciation for art.

Implications of his Science — Skinner spent a great deal of time linking his science to larger social issues (see, e.g., Beyond Freedom & Dignity and Walden Two).  As one example, the authors noted his work exploring the ethical implications of a science of behavior to social issues.  He offered up a science of social action based on fundamental principles of behavior of broad generality.  According to the authors, Skinner addressed the issue of how one determines what one “ought” to do based on data of “what is.”  For Skinner, “what is” and “what ought to be” both involve behavior and consequences.  His science provides a way to produce consequences valued by different cultures.

Description of Possible Applications — Perhaps the best known of such possibilities was Skinner’s (1948) novel Walden Two.  Unlike his other work, Walden Two was a work of fiction depicting a utopian society based on the principles of behavior from his own science.  The authors noted the range of possible applications subsumed within the book including those related to raising children, education, sustainability, and the workplace.

His Own Applications — The author’s described one of Skinner’s most famous applications known as “Project Pigeon.”  Funded by the U.S. Government and the General Mills Company during World War II, the project sought to develop the world’s first guided missiles by training a pigeon to peck at a screen in order to steer a missile to its target.  During the project, Skinner’s team discovered many important behavioral processes related to shaping, schedules of reinforcement, stimulus control, and motivating operations.

However, the authors noted “Skinner’s contributions notwithstanding, we do not conclude that he was either the originator or founder of applied behavior analysis.”  Though the authors asserted that Skinner utilized the seven dimensions of ABA across his career, they also asserted that Skinner never used them together in a focused body of work.

Be sure to read the full article for a much more in-depth analysis than could be provided here, and let us know what you think of the authors’ conclusions in the comments below!  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21.org via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox.

Todd A. Ward, PhD, BCBA-D is President of bSci21 Media, LLC, which owns bSci21.org and BAQuarterly.com.  Todd serves as an Associate Editor of the Journal of Organizational Behavior Management and as an editorial board member for Behavior and Social Issues.  He has worked as a behavior analyst in day centers, residential providers, homes, and schools, and served as the director of Behavior Analysis Online at the University of North Texas.  Todd’s areas of expertise include writing, entrepreneurship, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy, Instructional Design, Organizational Behavior Management, and ABA therapy. Todd can be reached at todd.ward@bsci21.org.

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3 Comments

  1. I have never understood why sorcial status should be granted to those who practice “applications” of behavior analysis untethered from the science. Skinner and the EAB community are foundational to ABA. The getacab tenets of ABA that seem so sacred to the field were added to by Cooprr et al. They could be examined again. They come from extrapolation from the science. There are core principles that are foundational to us all who call ourselves behavior analysts. Overriding and overarching science it seems to me. Skinner was one who started the framing of behavior via this particular operant point of view but it is evolving as a science. Still untethered from that foundation,we are or could devolve into self-admiring theorists who posit many points of view. Seems not al all a debate as to Skinner and Sidmsn and others as to their contribution to the applications world. Unfortunately many who call themselves ABA don’t realize that OBM is applied and thus “derived” from the same science home. Also that AOA now seems to mean our clinical side. I’m an ABA who practices the science with organizations (OBM). Anyway hope we see and appreciate and revisit our roots.

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