Tag: B. F. Skinner

The Books That Influenced B. F. Skinner

harvard guide to influential books

Found in The Harvard Guide to Influential Books: 113 Distinguished Harvard Professors Discuss the Books That Have Helped to Shape Their Thinking.

B.F. Skinner is a legendary psychologist. Building on those who came before him, he is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning. His analysis of human behavior culminated in Verbal Behavior and Walden Two.

Here is what Skinner had to say about which books influenced him and why.

Bacon is Shake-speare by Sir Edwin Durning-Lawrence

How Plants Grow: A Simple Introduction to Structural Botany by Asa Gray

Conditioned Reflexes: An Investigation of the Physiological Activity of the Cerebral Cortex by Ivan P. Pavlov

The Problems of Philosophy (1911) by Bertrand Russell

Behaviorism by John B. Watson

He writes:

The books that have been most important in leading me to my present position as a behaviorist are not books that I would recommend to anyone seeking to understand that position. They were important, not so much because of their content, but because of their bearing on my life at the time I read them. A mere accident sent me to Sir Edwin-Durning-Lawrence's Bacon is Shake-speare, and that book sent me in turn to all I could find of, and about, Francis Bacon. I have acknowledged the role of three great Baconian principles in my life, but I would not send anyone to Durning-Lawrence to discover them.

Gray's How Plants Grow, my high-school botany text, taught me, with the example of the radish, how living things pass on to the future the contributions they have received from the past. Later I found the same theme in Hervieu's “La Course du Flambeau,” but I would not send anyone there for further instruction. I was greatly influenced by the first third of Bertrand Russell's Problems of Philosophy. According to his biographer it was “written at speed for the American market,” and it certainly is not regarded as one of Russell's great books. Pavlov's Conditioned Reflexes taught me the importance of controlling laboratory conditions, but I soon departed from the Pavlovian paradigm. John B. Watson was important, of course, but I read only his Behaviorism, a book written for the general public. I am not sure I ever read his Psychology, from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist.

This is all perfectly reasonable, since, after all, if anything I have done is “creative,” should we expect to find it in anything I have read?

For more in this series check out the books that influenced E. O. Wilson.

Technology and Intermittent Reinforcement

Recent digital technologies generate a perfect storm of anti-attention, largely because they draw on the tremendous power of what B. F. Skinner called ‘intermittent reinforcement.’ We click the ‘new mail’ button in our email clients or look once more at Twitter or revisit Facebook because we get something new and interesting only sometimes—and this, Skinner learned, is far more powerful an incentive to animals than regular and predictable reinforcement. After all, if we know that whenever we click the button we will have new mail, our curiosity is diminished: when we get to it, it’ll be there. It’s the not knowing that prompts my rebellious hand to inch toward the iPhone. As Sam Anderson has written, ‘The Internet is basically a Skinner box engineered to tap right into our deepest mechanisms of addiction.’ (Many metaphors for this situation may suggest themselves: I am also fond of Cory Doctorow’s comment that ‘the biggest impediment to concentration is your computer’s ecosystem of interruption technologies.’)

Many of us try to console ourselves in the midst of the blooming and buzzing by claiming the powers of multi-tasking. But a great deal of very thorough research into multitasking has been done in recent years, and it has produced some unequivocally clear results, chief among them being: no one actually multitasks, instead, we shift among different tasks and give attention to only one at any given time.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction