“Looking for Skinner and finding Freud”

Geir OverskeidA while back, in the Fall of 2007, we posted a handful of notes about the articles then recently published in American Psychologist. But one slipped through the cracks: Geir Overskeid‘s essay on the relationship between Skinner and Freud.

Sigmund Freud and B. F. Skinner are often seen as psychology’s polar opposites. It seems this view is fallacious. Indeed, Freud and Skinner had many things in common, including basic assumptions shaped by positivism and determinism. More important, Skinner took a clear interest in psychoanalysis and wanted to be analyzed but was turned down. His views were influenced by Freud in many areas, such as dream symbolism, metaphor use, and defense mechanisms. Skinner drew direct parallels to Freud in his analyses of conscious versus unconscious control of behavior and of selection by consequences. He agreed with Freud regarding aspects of methodology and analyses of civilization. In his writings on human behavior, Skinner cited Freud more than any other author, and there is much clear evidence of Freud’s impact on Skinner’s thinking.

However, the delay has afforded an unexpected benefit: the full text of the article can now be found online here. (An additional related reading is provided below the fold.)

See also:

  • Sanders, C.  (1978).  Prominent behaviorists and Freud.  Nederlands Tijdschrift voor de Psychologie en haar Grensgebieden, 33(3), 143-161.

Discusses the views of J. B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, and C. L. Hull regarding psychoanalysis. Watson and Skinner criticize it from a metaphysical behavioristic point of view, which denies the independent reality of consciousness. For Skinner this approach is strengthened by his nontheoretical position. However, methodological behaviorism, together with a theoretical interest in mediating processes, may lead to a positive appreciation of Freud, such as is shown by Hull. Both Freud and Hull took a keen interest in physiology. Hull postulated quasi-physiological concepts and Freud described inferred unconscious processes by means of physical and physiological metaphors. Attention is also called to Hull’s translation of key Freudian concepts into behavioristic terms.

About Jeremy Burman

Jeremy Trevelyan Burman is a senior doctoral student in York University’s Department of Psychology, specializing in the history of developmental psychology and its theory (especially that pertaining to Jean Piaget). Prior to returning to academia, he was a producer at the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.