Historians' Corner

Welcome to the Historians' Corner

2017 is the 60th anniversary of the publication of Schedules of Reinforcement by Charles B. Ferster and B. F. Skinner, known by those of us who love it as Schedules. The book was over 700 pages long, weighed more than a large pigeon at ad libidumbody weight, and contained more than 900 figures (one of which is shown in the photograph to the left), almost all of cumulative records. In 1957 it sold for the princely sum of US$ 9.50. The book was the culmination of Skinner’s laboratory work that began when he was a Harvard graduate student in the late 1920s. Ferster joined Skinner as post-doctoral researcher to help Skinner complete the research and write the book. Skinner was sufficiently pleased by Ferster’s work on the project that he honored him with first-authorship of the volume.

Schedules largely defined schedules of reinforcement, those ubiquitous arrangements of reinforcers in time and in relation to responses, as Michael Zeiler later defined them to be. The book contributed significantly to the growth of the science of behavior. The schedule performances illustrated became templates or standards for laboratory scientists studying schedules and using schedules as baselines to study other behavioral phenomena, such as delay of reinforcement or choice. If the performance generated looked like that reported in Schedules, there was greater confidence in the laboratory’s procedures. The schedules and their parameters described in schedules generated an enormous amount of research on both schedules of reinforcement and behavioral processes that could be studied using different types of reinforcement schedules.

Most importantly, the collection of all that schedule performance in one place was a powerful statement about the importance of environmental arrangements as determinants of behavior. Without altering the organism at all, but simply its environment by changing schedule requirements, an almost infinite range of response rates and patterns of responding could be generated. The implications of such profound behavioral effects was not lost on behavior analysts.

Although the work described both previously known and few new schedules of reinforcement, it certainly did not exhaust the catalogue of reinforcement schedules. New schedules continue to be created in both research and application, limited only by the creator’s history of reinforcement.

Soon after it was published, Schedules was reviewed by David A. Grant in Contemporary Psychology under the clever title of “Pigeons Peck for Positivism.” The reviewer had a few begrudgingly appreciative comments, but the overall tone of the review was one of skepticism of Skinner’s approach to science.

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