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Skinner's outline of the behaviourist school of psychology
on 5 June 2016
B. F. Skinner's "About Behaviourism" is a major contribution to the philosophical and theoretical understanding of psychology. Skinner sought, in this book, to present an overview of Behaviourism - outlining its key themes and premises, while highlighting ideas wrongly associated with this school of thought. The book was first published in 1974 - and is, in many ways, a culmination of Skinner's arguments as advanced throughout his career. It brings together - in a highly readable manner - the central tenets made in his previous publications (such as 'Science and Human Behaviour' (1953), 'Verbal Behavior' (1957), and 'Beyond Freedom and Dignity' (1971)). Yet in this particular work, Skinner also aims to clarify the Behaviourist position more generally - commenting on the weaknesses and limitations of earlier theorists, such as John Watson (founder of Behaviourism).
The book is written with a popular readership intended, and as such it's not overly academic in presentation. It can be understood by someone who's new to psychology - and is intended to be insightful and engaging. It is, in all essentials, a book that takes as its purpose the task of explaining the reasons why this theoretical position is correct - and how, if applied, it would revolutionise the organisation of society (creating a more peaceful way of life, based on cooperative social existence). Skinner explores several topics, including: the causes of behaviour, operant conditioning, thinking, motivations and emotions, and issues of control.
This book was highly influential when it was originally published, and shaped debate within psychology for many years. The main argument advanced by Skinner is that the notion of human 'free will' is an illusion, and that behaviour is dependent on the consequences of previous behaviours. If the consequences are negative, the likelihood is that the action will not be repeated; whereas if the consequences are positive, it is more probable that the action will be repeated. As such, human behaviour is conditioned - the outcome of a lifetime of reinforcement. Given the importance of Skinner's work, he is recognised as one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century.
Of course, the book received a great deal of criticism. And the behaviourist school of psychology - although influential - has never dominated the field (rather, schools of thought focussing on the Mind have tended to be hegemonic). Notwithstanding the criticisms this book received, it remains highly fascinating - and is an enjoyable read. If you're interested in psychology, I recommend it.