Chapter 11: Skinner – Behavioral Analysis

Part 3: 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).

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 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 or 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).  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 computers, and most of them are anything but boring.  Some of the educational programs available for children are fascinating and fun games and they 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.


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.

This is a color photo of a child's hand holding a yellow cookie.
Source Image: DayronV. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

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.

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).

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, perceptions, 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.

In the second half of the 20th century, behaviorism was expanded through advances in cognitive theories. While behaviorism and cognitive schools of psychological thought may not agree theoretically, they have complemented each other in practical therapeutic applications like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), which has been used widely in the treatment of many different mental disorders, such as phobias, PTSD, and addiction. (Behavioral Psychology, n.d.  Some behavior therapies employ Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning: by not reinforcing certain behaviors, these behaviors can be extinguished. Skinner’s radical behaviorism advanced a “triple contingency” model, which explored the links between the environment, behavior, and the mind. This later gave rise to applied behavior analysis (ABA), in which operant conditioning techniques are used to reinforce positive behaviors and punish unwanted behaviors. This approach to treatment has been an effective tool to help children on the autism spectrum; however, it is considered controversial by many who see it as attempting to change or “normalize” autistic behaviors (Lovaas, 1987, 2003; Sallows & Graupner, 2005; Wolf & Risley, 1967). (Behavioral Psychology, n.d.)

Supplemental Materials

What is Behavior Therapy?

This video [10:43] describes behavior therapy as a therapeutic modality based on behaviorism.  It explains the strict nature of behavior therapy and focuses on the role of stimulus and response.



Use a Learning Theory: Behaviorism

This video [3:24] explores the application of learning theory of behaviorism in an educational setting.



Behavioral Psychology. Provided by Boundless. Retrieved from Licensed under CC-BY-SA-4.0.

Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0.

Dr. Todd Grande.  (2018, February 13).  What is behavior therapy?   [Video File]. Retrieved from  Standard YouTube License.

BlueSofaMedia.  (2012, December 30).  Use a learning theory: Behaviorism.  [Video File]. Retrieved from  Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality Copyright © by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.