B.F. Skinner has been quoted all over the place on the internet (e.g. PsychologyDegreeGuide) to say

Give me a child and I'll shape him into anything

I am starting to think he didn't as I am yet to find a reference to where he said it.

The nearest I have found is

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant, chief, and yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors. (Watson, 1925, p. 82)

Robert Charles Lee, BSc (Hons) Psych & Stats, 1981, Univ. of London states that it

seems to have come from a TV interview in the 1960s and reused in an Open University (UK) programme in the 1970s and '80s.

I have yet to find this.

Did Skinner really say this? If so, where?


Watson, J. B. (1925). Behaviorism. New York: Norton.

  • $\begingroup$ frankly there's not a lot of difference between the brief statement and the expanded one. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Aug 3 '18 at 21:35
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz The expanded statement is by Watson, not by Skinner, and it misses the contextual sentence that follows in which he makes it clear that he intends the statement to be an example caricature that his critics may make of behaviorism. $\endgroup$ – Bryan Krause Aug 3 '18 at 21:40
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    $\begingroup$ FWIW, I also found a (Sage) textbook which attributes it to Skinner books.google.com/books?id=wvBXBAAAQBAJ&pg=PA323 If you don't get an answer here, try also on Skeptics; it's also on-topic there to ask such questions, and they get more eyes. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Aug 3 '18 at 21:41
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    $\begingroup$ I found it said less guardedly but in more marginal sources books.google.com/books?id=UyAhBQAAQBAJ&pg=PA37 or books.google.com/books?id=N_xdDwAAQBAJ&pg=PA266 If he ever state it, it was almost certanly not in writing. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Aug 3 '18 at 21:56
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz - This makes me think that there might be some truth in Robert Charles Lee's statement that it "seems to have come from a TV interview in the 1960s and reused in an Open University (UK) programme in the 1970s and '80s." I just wish I could confirm or deny this. Maybe I will try skeptics as you suggested earlier. $\endgroup$ – Chalmondley Aug 4 '18 at 10:16

Skinner never said anything like this. Unfortunately his work towards a science of behavior is often misunderstood.

See Mike Samsa’s blog post Misunderstanding Behaviorism for a good explanation of Skinner’s philosophy.


I also think it's false that Skinner really said it (exactly like that), and even if he said it offhand verbally, it's almost certain he didn't put it in writing in that form.

My argument is that the 4-gram "shape him into anything" doesn't show in n-gram viewer, which means there are very few books containing it... according to the help. If you try "give me a child" you'll get an n-gram as there are plenty of books containing that 4-gram.

A book search (instead of n-gram) for the phrase "shape him into anything" returns only 10 books or so. 3 or 4 of these attribute it to Skinner, one reservedly, which is a psychology textbook. The other books are on the margins of psychology (philosophy etc.) so they likely propagate hearsay. None of the books containing that phrase is a biography of Skinner, and there are some book-length biographies of him. Also none of the books say or cite where he might have said or written it.

The exact same result (no n-gram, few books) also applies to the 4-gram "child and I'll shape".

As a related trivia, some of the books that hit "give me a child", have it for "give me a child until he is seven, and he is mine for life," attributed to unnamed Jesuits, but other books cast doubt on veracity of the attribution. I'm mentioning this because one book drew a connection between what Skinner supposedly said and what Jesuits supposedly said.

As for a passage that ideatically comes close to that and we know Skinner wrote... here's one in SEP

Skinner protests that “it is in the nature of an experimental analysis of human behavior that it should strip away the functions previously assigned to autonomous man and transfer them one by one to the controlling environment” (1971, p. 198).

I read a few more pages from Skinner's Science and Human Behavior (195X). The passage I quoted is actually quite representative of Skinner's pretty convoluted writing style. The hypothesis that he would have written anything in a more direct fashion seems pretty unlikely. I don't know how he spoke...


The 1958 Humanist says:

Skinner's view, as Israel presents it, is that human beings can be molded — and happily molded — into anything

This article also refers to an epic debate between Skinner and Carl Rogers at a 1956 American Psychological Association meeting.

  • $\begingroup$ That's an interesting find, but it seems to argue for Social Exploits's view that that simplifying discourse is how Skinner's opponents presented him. Wellcome to psy.SE, by the way. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Aug 4 '18 at 15:47
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz thanks, here is a 4 hour audio tape of a Skinner - Rogers debate m.youtube.com/watch?v=wh8GESlAAwY Introduction implies it is from 1962. $\endgroup$ – DavePhD Aug 4 '18 at 16:00
  • $\begingroup$ I actually tried to listen to that, but (literally) fell asleep during Skinner's half; he relies on a pretty rhetorical device to say that by "control" he does not mean "absolute control"; what he means in more modern terms is influence. So if I make someone 1% more likely to buy swiss cheese by showing them an ad, I'm "controlling" that person (in Skinner's terms). So that was a pretty boring debate for me to listen. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Aug 5 '18 at 10:29
  • $\begingroup$ Based on that, I suspect a lot of misinterpretation of Skinner's views stems from his idiosyncratic use of language like the "control" issue I mentioned. $\endgroup$ – Fizz Aug 5 '18 at 10:37
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    $\begingroup$ @Fizz Yes, "Israel" means: Matthew Israel, "A Science of Behavior," The Humanist, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 (January-. February, 1958), pp. 12-23. $\endgroup$ – DavePhD Aug 5 '18 at 13:33

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