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The Experimental Analysis of Behavior

The 1957 American Scientist article, reproduced in full

B. F. Skinner


It is unfortunate that a presentation of this sort must be confined to mere examples. Little more can be done than to suggest the range of application of the method and the uniformity of results over a fairly wide range of species. The extent to which we are moving toward a unified formulation of this difficult material cannot be properly set forth. Perhaps enough has been said, however, to make one point—that in turning to probability of response or, more immediately, to frequency of responding we find a datum which behaves in an orderly fashion under a great variety of conditions. Such a datum yields the kind of rigorous analysis which deserves a place in the natural sciences. Several features should not be overlooked. Most of the records reproduced here report the behavior of single individuals; they are not the statistical product of an “average organism.” Changes in behavior are followed continuously during substantial experimental sessions. They often reveal changes occurring within a few seconds which would be missed by any procedure which merely samples behavior from time to time. The properties of the changes seen in the cumulative curves cannot be fully appreciated in the non-instrumental observation of behavior. The reproducibility from species to species is a product of the method. In choosing stimuli, responses, and reinforcers appropriate to the species being studied, we eliminate the sources of many species differences. What emerges are dynamic properties of behavior, often associated with the central nervous system.

Have we been guilty of an undue simplification of conditions in order to obtain this level of rigor? Have we really “proved” that there is comparable order outside the laboratory? It is difficult to be sure of the answers to such questions. Suppose we are observing the rate at which a man sips his breakfast coffee. We have a switch concealed in our hand, which operates a cumulative recorder in another room. Each time our subject sips, we close the switch. It is unlikely that we shall record a smooth curve. At first the coffee is too hot and sipping is followed by aversive consequences. As it cools, positive reinforcers emerge, but satiation sets in. Other events at the breakfast table intervene. Sipping eventually ceases not because the cup is empty but because the last few drops are cold.

But although our behavioral curve will not be pretty, neither will the cooling curve for the coffee in the cup. In extrapolating our results to the world at large, we can do no more than the physical and biological sciences in general. Because of experiments performed under laboratory conditions, no one doubts that the cooling of the coffee in the cup is an orderly process, even though the actual curve would be very difficult to explain. Similarly, when we have investigated behavior under the advantageous conditions of the laboratory, we can accept its basic orderliness in the world at large even though we cannot there wholly demonstrate law.

In turning from an analysis of this sort many familiar aspects of human affairs take on new significance [21]. Moreover, as we might expect, scientific analysis gives birth to technology. The insight into human behavior gained from research of this sort has already proved effective in many areas. The application to personnel problems in industry, to psychotherapy, to “human relations” in general, is clear. The most exciting technological extension at the moment appears to be in the field of education. The principles emerging from this analysis, and from a study of verbal behavior based upon it, are already being applied in the design of mechanical devices to facilitate instruction in reading, spelling, and arithmetic in young children, and in routine teaching at the college level.

In the long run one may envisage a fundamental change in government itself, taking that term in the broadest possible sense. For a long time men of good will have tried to improve the cultural patterns in which they live. It is possible that a scientific analysis of behavior will provide us at last with the techniques we need for this task—with the wisdom we need to build a better world and through it better men.


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