On This Day … 20 March [2022]

People (Births)

  • 1895 – Fredric Wertham, German-American psychologist and author (d. 1981).
  • 1904 – B.F. Skinner, American psychologist and author (d. 1990).

Frederic Wertham

Fredric Wertham (born Friedrich Ignatz Wertheimer, 20 March 1895 to 18 November 1981) was a German-American psychiatrist and author. Wertham had an early reputation as a progressive psychiatrist who treated poor black patients at his Lafargue Clinic at a time of heightened discrimination in urban mental health practice. Wertham also authored a definitive textbook on the brain, and his institutional stressor findings were cited when courts overturned multiple segregation statutes, most notably in Brown v. Board of Education.

Despite this, Wertham remains best known for his concerns about the effects of violent imagery in mass media and the effects of comic books on the development of children. His best-known book is Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which asserted that comic books caused youth to become delinquents. Besides Seduction of the Innocent, Wertham also wrote articles and testified before government inquiries into comic books, most notably as part of a US Congressional inquiry into the comic book industry. Wertham’s work, in addition to the 1954 comic book hearings, led to the creation of the Comics Code Authority, although later scholars cast doubt on his observations.

B.F. Skinner

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (20 March 1904 to 18 August 1990) was an American psychologist, behaviourist, author, inventor, and social philosopher. He was a professor of psychology at Harvard University from 1958 until his retirement in 1974.

Considering free will to be an illusion, Skinner saw human action as dependent on consequences of previous actions, a theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement: If the consequences to an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger.

Skinner developed behaviour analysis, especially the philosophy of radical behaviourism, and founded the experimental analysis of behaviour, a school of experimental research psychology. He also used operant conditioning to strengthen behaviour, considering the rate of response to be the most effective measure of response strength. To study operant conditioning, he invented the operant conditioning chamber (aka the Skinner box), and to measure rate he invented the cumulative recorder. Using these tools, he and Charles Ferster produced Skinner’s most influential experimental work, outlined in their 1957 book Schedules of Reinforcement.

Skinner was a prolific author, publishing 21 books and 180 articles. He imagined the application of his ideas to the design of a human community in his 1948 utopian novel, Walden Two, while his analysis of human behaviour culminated in his 1958 work, Verbal Behaviour.

Skinner, John B. Watson and Ivan Pavlov, are considered to be the pioneers of modern behaviourism. Accordingly, a June 2002 survey listed Skinner as the most influential psychologist of the 20th century.

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