Skinner, 1945

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APA Citation: 

Skinner, B. F. (1945). The operational analysis of psychological terms. Psychological Review, 52, 270-277.

Publication Topic: 
Behavior Analysis: Conceptual
Contextual Methodology & Scientific Strategy
Publication Type: 
Skinner, operational analysis, operational definition, verbal behavior, private events

from a post to the ACT and RFT lists...
What Skinner is up to in this paper is a Skinnerian operational definition. Skinner participated in a symposium on operationism published in 1945. His paper entitled "Operational Analysis of Psychological Terms" is known by behavior analysis geeks simply as "the '45 paper." In it, we see that Skinner takes a very different view on operationism than was taken by any of his contemporaries. Skinner basically said that the meaning of a term is to be found in its determinants (i.e. context). Hence, if we want to know the meaning of any term, we need an analysis of the contextual conditions that generate and maintain it (SD's SR's EO's). In the '45 paper Skinner suggests that we should make the same analysis of the speech of scientists that we make of any other behavior. This applies to the "validity" of the verbal observations of scientist in the following way: to the extent that the scientists behavior is reinforced predominantly by her increased ability to exert prediction and influence over events being studied (predominantly nonverbal), her observations are "valid." To the extent that observations are under the control of socially mediated reinforcers such as money, fame, praise, (rather than by uncreased ability to predict and influence) they are "invalid." I really think that this is what was radical about radical behaviorism--it's insistence that the analysis could be applied not only to the behavior of subjects in an experiment, but also to the scientist running the study, and to the theorist whose theory drove the research.

For behavior analysts, understanding the contextual determinants _is_ what we mean by understanding.

I tell students that if they want to understand what Skinner is up to across pretty much everything he writes, the '45 paper holds the keys to the kingdom. the '45 paper represents a fully mature Skinner--everything after is elaboration and refinement, but this is the heart and soul of his analysis. In this little paper we see Skinner's epistemology, his general theory, his theory of verbal behavior. I think that it is a landmark. If you get what Skinner is doing in there, you can go on to read Beyond Freedom and Dignity and About Behaviorism and see what he is doing is those provocative books.

Needless to say, as a hopeless psych geek, I love this paper. I would add that Jay Moore covers operationism and is much easier to read than Skinner. I don't have Jay's reference or the paper handy. I do have the 45 paper in pdf and have posted it to the contextual psych website.


I am a geek for this paper. kgw
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