B. F. Skinner Foundation

America’s most influential behavioral scientist is B. F. Skinner. His behavioral science discoveries have impacted training and applications for many areas including: animal training, working with students and those with autism, occupational behavior management, and education. He published 180 articles and 21 books. He also wrote over 3500 unpublished notes.

The B. F. Skinner Foundation is a 501(c)3 corporation, dedicated to promoting the science initiated by B. F. Skinner and its humane social and educational applications.The B. F. Skinner Foundation has had a substantial impact on scholarship, behavioral science, and education. The Foundation magazine, Operants, website inquiries, email and social media attention have dramatically increased in recent years. Inquiries from textbook publishers, television/radio companies, college professors, and school teachers are common.

Requests for information and permissions to quote Skinner’s works come from historians of science, high school students, undergraduate and graduate students, business consultants, parents of children with autism, pet trainers and owners, and surgeons (one of the metropolitan New York teaching hospitals successfully piloted a program to improve skills of orthopedic surgery residents based on operant conditioning). The Notes files would increase the accessibility of requested information on Skinner’s views about behavioral science, ethics, cultural design, education, and many other fields. Scholars, historians of science, and the general public would find the searchable Notebooks project an invaluable resource.

The B. F. Skinner Foundation proposes to make available in digital format approximately 3,500 notes, organized chronologically within major thematic areas. The notes will be annotated to identify people, places, and events. The electronic file will ensure easy access through libraries, the B. F. Skinner Foundation website, and Harvard University Archives to accompany its B. F. Skinner Collection. The project is expected to take three years to complete and the first 600 notes will be completed in the first year.

The B. F. Skinner Notes will be available online free of charge through http://skinnernotes.com and http://skinnernotes.org in a user interface that will be tested for usability by volunteers and colleagues. Consideration will be taken for eventual conversion into formats for people with disabilities. Notes will also be available through the Harvard University Archives and will be offered for distribution through other university and government library and archival services. After the entire project is completed, the B. F. Skinner Foundation will consider publishing selected notes in a book format (print and electronic), providing the same scope of annotations and indexing as the electronic version.

THE B. F. SKINNER NOTES PROJECT

OVERVIEW

America’s most influential behavioral scientist is B. F. Skinner. His discoveries led to effective and non-aversive practical applications in many fields, such as animal training, teaching of patients with autism spectrum disorders, occupational behavioral management and  education. Skinner was a prolific writer. Throughout his life, he published 180 articles and 21 books. He was also a meticulous note-taker. Sometimes he would stop mid-conversation to write down a thought or an observation. Later, the handwritten notes would be typed by a secretary. Most of these notes never appeared in any of his publications.

Skinner’s notes provide an insight into his thinking and his personal life. They give not only a portrait of a quintessential American scientist, but also the development of his thinking over the 60 years of his professional life. The B. F. Skinner Foundation proposes to make available in digital format approximately 3,500 notes, organized chronologically within major thematic areas. The notes will be annotated to identify people, places, and events. The proposed electronic file will use a format to permit easy interchange of information. It will be offered without charge to libraries as well as being made available through the B. F. Skinner Foundation website and Harvard University Archives to accompany its B. F. Skinner Collection. The project is expected to take three years to complete.

HISTORICAL OVERVIEW

In 1928, B. F. Skinner entered Harvard University as a graduate student to study behavior. The most common explanation for behavior at the time relied on an event, called a stimulus, that preceded the “response” to be explained. When values of stimuli and responses did not pair up in a predictable way, an “agency” or other inferred variable between the stimulus and response was said to account for the unpredictability. Skinner discovered that most behavior was not controlled by an antecedent stimulus, but by its consequences. He named this kind of behavior, “operant” behavior. With equipment called an “operant chamber” and a measurement system using a cumulative recorder, he documented how moment to moment changes in specific properties of actions were selected by their consequences. The relation between action properties, their immediate consequences, and the contextual situations in which the pairings occurred he termed “contingencies of reinforcement.” The Behavior of Organisms, his first publication, presented over six years of research on many different arrangements of consequences over a variety of contexts.

The Second World War brought a temporary halt to his basic laboratory work. Instead, he extended operant principles to a practical problem: How to guide missiles to their targets. In those days before radio-guidance, he trained pigeons to guide missiles. It was during this period that Skinner developed the technique of “shaping.” In shaping, new behavior is taught by reinforcing actions closest to the desired goal. The technique soon spread to animal work and to classrooms. Shaping is now standard practice in the competency-based instructional practices of “Applied Behavior Analysis.” It provides humane alternatives to drugs or physical restraint with both humans and with zoo animals. With shaping, lions or walruses can be taught to hold still while getting shots or other medical attention.

With a colleague, Charles Ferster, in 1957 Skinner published Schedules of Reinforcement. This encyclopedia of timings of consequences shows how behavior such as addictive gambling arises even when payoffs are scarce and costs are high. Skinner also extended behavioral principles to the analysis of verbal behavior in a book with the same name. He continued writing until his death in 1990. He gave his last talk to an overflow audience eight days before his death.

As a prolific author, Skinner addressed a number of issues in science, philosophy, cultural design, and ethics. He influenced not only his colleagues, but also the general public as testified by his best selling books Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity. Many of his books, such as Verbal Behavior increase in sales each year. Skinner’s books also continue to be translated into other languages, showing international interest.

Skinner’s honors reflect the range of his contributions. He was awarded both the National Medal of Science from the National Science Foundation and the Humanist of the Year Award from the American Humanist Society. He received nineteen honorary degrees including degrees from Harvard, Exeter, and Keio Universities.

Skinner’s notes talk about his thoughts when working out what he had to say. Few scientists have documented their personal reflections and daily thoughts as thoroughly as B. F. Skinner. Even fewer scientists stand out as both an American scientist and a social commentator. Scientists’ notes with details written at the time of conversations and thought processes are rare. Skinner himself valued his notes, as he mentioned in one of them (See APPENDIX A:4 for the original):
2/12/87
“Garry Boring turned over 120,000 letters to the Harvard Archives. I will eventually have sent them a few thousands. And what a difference! Not 1 in 100 of mine says anything worth saying. Garry’s are essays, as a selection recently published by Division 20 of the APA illustrates. I don’t know whether he also kept a notebook. But his letters are what I have written as notes.”

A few of Skinner’s unpublished notes between the years of 1928 and 1979 are housed in the B. F. Skinner collection at the Harvard University Pusey Library. The label “notes” appears in folders in only 3 of the 82 boxes at the archives. Some are lecture notes, not personal reflections. In 1980, a small selection of Skinner’s notes was published as a book titled Notebooks, now out of print. Many of the notes in Notebooks were dated, but the dates appeared only in the index. The notes were not arranged according to specific topics or themes. They lacked identification of people, places, and events. And of course, the print version was not searchable.

Skinner wrote notes by hand, in writing so difficult to read that in midlife he taught himself italic handwriting so he could read what he had written. He dictated each handwritten note for his secretary to type. He then corrected spellings of names and other typographical errors. He also occasionally added comments.

In 1989, the year before Skinner’s death, a biographer named Daniel Bjork visited Skinner’s home and discovered several file drawers full of typed notes. Bjork asked Skinner if he could have a copy of all of the notes. He further requested that Skinner organize them roughly by date. Skinner did so, creating a set of notebooks containing approximately 3500 notes. Most of the notes are not dated, but they are organized more or less by year. When Bjork completed his biography, he returned the typed notes to Skinner’s daughter who will make them available for the present project.

The proposed electronic compendium of Skinner’s typed and corrected notes includes some surprising items. For example, in 1955 he was staying at a small inn in Vermont during a sabbatical to finish his book Verbal Behavior. While there, he wrote a fifty notes about what it would take to start a real Walden Two. There is a page about naming the community with the advantages and disadvantages of each name (See APPENDIX A:3). There is a page on what to do when someone joins but still has to support a parent. Few readers of Walden Two, or researchers interested in utopian communities, are aware of Skinner’s continued interest in planned communities. Skinner’s broad interests show in the many topics of general interest he addresses as well as themes of interest especially to researchers. For students and the public, as well as researchers, the proposed electronic collection would be an invaluable resource.

The B. F. Skinner Foundation is uniquely qualified to undertake this project. Established in 1988, the Foundation promotes the science founded by B. F. Skinner and supports the humane practices derived from that science. Its goal is to help to engineer a better world by providing information to scholars, students and the general public about the behavioral science and practices pioneered by Skinner. The Foundation began as a publisher, mostly of books written by Skinner. It expanded its reach in the 21st century by converting its publications into e-book formats, establishing a website and adding social media outlets.

The Foundation’s website is a primary resource for information about Skinner and his work. It also provides a location where individuals from around the world can interact with Foundation personnel and find other behavioral scientists with similar concerns. The Foundation has provided internship opportunities both for Americans and for foreigners.

The B. F. Skinner Foundation has a wealth of material from Skinner’s literary estate, from donations contributed by his colleagues and students, and from family members. The Foundation has added to its already extensive collection through contributions from companies that published Skinner materials or films. The Foundation continues to maintain contact with professionals and students worldwide who are former students, colleagues, or individuals interested in his work. The Foundation is also the prime contact for permissions to reproduce Skinner material or for translations of Skinner’s works.

The B. F. Skinner Foundation publishes the quarterly Operants magazine, distributed electronically for free to almost 10,000 subscribers worldwide. Operants features articles on individuals and research in behavioral science and on successful practical applications. Being international in nature, the magazine translates sections into languages other than English.

Harvard University Archives and the B. F. Skinner Foundation have a long history of cooperation. Harvard has a large B. F. Skinner collection in its Pusey Library. Many visitors combine visits to the Foundation with research at the Harvard University Archives. In 2016, both institutions hosted visitors from universities in the United States, as well as scholars from countries overseas, such as Brazil, Iceland, Luxemburg, and Poland. Most recently, two Brazilian PhD students spent six months working with materials at the Foundation and in the Harvard University Archives. They expressed frustration with the difficulty of locating specific information. They would have welcomed the ability to search through Skinner’s notes for his comments on specific topics.