Date of Award


Document Type

Doctoral Research Paper

Degree Name


Organizational Unit

Graduate School of Professional Psychology

First Advisor

Michael Karson

Second Advisor

John McNeill

Third Advisor

Sonja Holt


B. F. Skinner, Performance excellence, Psychology


Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner was a revolutionary in the field of psychology, particularly noted for his development of a philosophy of science and an approach to psychological study labeled radical behaviorism (Rachlin, 1995). To Skinner, psychology was synonymous with an organism's interactions between its environment and its own behavior - and behavior was defined accordingly. This way of studying psychology differed greatly from preceding behavioral iterations in psychology and kept up with advances in ·established fields of science. Due to the deficiencies of the behavioral tradition coming before Skinner, misunderstandings by many psychologists and scientists of the Skinnerian approach were gross and frequent. This was especially true when it came to Skinner's take on the free will of humans, how behavior can and should be guided, and the overall goals of science. Yet through conceptualizing psychology as a functional process and by focusing on the study of behavior as its subject matter, Skinner developed an influential and useful body of work that awarded him the National Medal of Science award and the first honoring for the Outstanding Lifetime Contribution by the American Psychological Association (Morris, 2008). Specifically, Skinner coined the term "operant" behavior, which, in being different from reflexes triggered directly by identifiable stimuli (respondents), has been misconstrued as "voluntary action" (Baars, 2003), but actually refers to behaviors that operate on the environment and are affected by consequences. It is a term and a "type" of behavior that is inextricably linked to his definition of psychology and was well-suited to Skinner's talents as a scientist. Cleverness and ingenuity were common in Skinner's design of experiments and his creation of various apparatuses for experimenting with operants. With this style and with a focus on operant behavior, Skinner's eyes were turned toward how an organism's behavior was shaped over the course of its lifespan by its environment and the consequences of its behavior. Perhaps the key take-away when reflecting on Skinner's way of thinking is that he saw human life as a worthy subject of scientific study (Rachlin, 1995) and he saw human behavior as selected by consequences, analogous to the selection of genes by environments (Skinner, 1981). The maxim may go: "Regard no practice as immutable. Change and be ready to change again. Accept no eternal verity. Experiment" (Skinner, 1979, p. 346).

In this doctoral paper, I am presenting B. F. Skinner's theory of performance excellence for use in the field of performance psychology consulting as if for a chapter in Aoyagi and Poczwardowski's (2012) Expert Approaches to Sport Psychology: Applied Theories of Performance Excellence.

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