BF Skinner

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Illusion of Free will

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Behavior not driven by DNA

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Operant Conditioning

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BF Skinner

Human behavior is one of the most complex yet phenomenal studies in psychology to date.  Endless questions such as ‘Why we do the things we do, and why others’ behave in a certain manner.’ Is it possible that our behavior could be manipulated?  Can we manipulate the behavior of another? What if everything we believed about the elements within our own behavior were false?  Are our motives dependent on our own internal beliefs of right and wrong, or is it a result of external forces? These answers may surprise you. Human behavior is one of the most popular and widely studied areas in psychology, and one of the top reasons students decide to enter this fascinating area of academia.

The greatest forefather of behaviorism of all time is Burrhus Frederic Skinner, or more commonly known as BF Skinner.  He is a household name within the family of Psychology. An American Psychologist born in Pennsylvania on March 20th, 1904, who received his doctorate at Harvard University, and spent a lifetime studying behaviorism.  BF Skinner grew up in a loving and warm environment, his father was a lawyer, and his mother was a housewife. He was an enthusiastic inventor and builder with creations such as moveable carts, motion machines, and a flotation device, which was trough used for berry picking that separated and discarded the green berries, and kept the ripe berries dropping them into a bucket.  He even invented a method to make sweeping the floor at a shoe store more efficient with an apparatus that mixed cleaning granules or ‘green dust’ and water and then with a lever he could strew this mix onto the floor which apparently made his job easier. 

BF Skinner was notably inspired by Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) and his “Law of Effect” As he is quoted stating; “any behavior that is followed by pleasant consequences is likely to be repeated, and any behavior followed by unpleasant consequences is likely to be stopped.”  Thorndike constructed a cage and trained mostly cats to find a lever that opens the cage for them to escape. After a few tries, Thorndike was able to condition the cats to know exactly how to escape from the cage. 

BF Skinner, several years later followed the same path and constructed a wooden box termed ‘The Skinner Box’.  This box was equipped with a lever that would dispense food or water.  When he placed a rat in the box, the rat would run around in search of food, when after a while he accidentally triggered the lever and a pellet of food was released.  Shortly thereafter the rat once again accidentally hit the lever and another pellet of food was released and he quickly learned that his actions resulted in a ‘positive reinforcement’.  The rat continued to press the lever more quickly and repeatedly to continue the reinforcement.

In addition to positive reinforcement, Skinner then decided to further illustrate his findings by experimenting with negative reinforcement.  A rat was then placed into the box which now had an unpleasant electrical current.  Eventually the rat discovered a lever which stopped the current.  Shortly thereafter the rat came to learn that when placed in the box to go directly to the lever to avoid the electrical current altogether.  At one point Skinner even had the rat correlate a light with the electrical current, and would press the lever when the light came on before the electrical current even occurred. This was a very successful outcome for Skinner, and a beginning of his Operant Conditioning Theory.

BF Skinner’s Operant Conditioning is described as learning based on external reinforcements or punishers.  Operant Conditioning is the tool Skinner created to reinforce positive behavior and to modify negative behavior by focusing on external sources as opposed to internal motivations or desires.  In an effort to reinforce positive behavior Skinner introduced the use of positive reinforcements which would range anywhere from compliments to an acknowledgement of a job well done, to even a gift or a special treat.  For example, if a child received a good grade in class, he may be rewarded with a candy or a gold star next to his name.  This would be a positive reinforcement. 

Another element of Operant Conditioning is the use of Negative Reinforcement.  This behavior modification uses the method of removing something unpleasant or ‘negative’ from the subject as reinforcement for good behavior.  For example, that same child who did well in class would instead be given the reward of not having to complete a test the following day.  Something negative (if he does not like tests) is removed as a reward to reinforce the same good behavior. 

A key thing to remember in Operant Conditioning is that positive does not mean good, it just means positive reinforcement, or something given.  And negative does not mean bad, it just means negative reinforcement, or something taken away.  And both are used to promote desired behavior.

Reinforcement could be continuous, or intermittent, and Skinner came to the realization that intermittent reinforcement worked best when increasing a certain behavior.  For example; If a dog were given a treat each time he provided a good behavior, then he would learn to expect it each time.  And if the continuous reinforcement were to stop, then Skinner’s term ‘extinction’ would take place and the desired behavior of the dog would stop as well.  However, with intermittent reinforcement, the dog would learn that the treat ‘might’ be given, and therefore it is more likely that he will continue with the desired behavior, just on the chance that the treat be given.

Interestingly, while utilizing his theory of operant conditioning, Skinner was able to teach pigeons Ping-Pong, and Bowling!  This began when Skinner received funding from the military to teach pigeons to peck on a button to direct missiles, this mission however did not reach fruition, but it does bring up another important element of operant conditioning, and that is Shaping. 

In order to teach the pigeons to play Ping-Pong, Skinner would reward the pigeons with each minor succession called ‘successive approximation’ with each move towards the intended target.  And with each successive approximation, he became closer to the full desired behavior of the Pigeon.  With this Shaping, the pigeons quickly learned to tap the ball back and forth across the Ping-Pong table, and similarly to push a ball across a cardboard bowling alley to hit the targeted bowling pins. 

Another element of Skinner’s operant conditioning is the use of punishment as the process to weaken or decrease a certain behavior, also known as behavior modification.

Skinner adamantly believed that our actions and behavior all stem from external elements and enforcers, not at all dependent on internal motives or determination.  Inner thoughts and desires to behave in a particular manner are just an illusion and that everything we do is resultant upon those external forces.  This of course caused great controversy among humanists who passionately believed that our actions are a consequence of our internal motives.  Despite these criticisms, he held strongly onto his beliefs, in fact, some even accused him of being cold and unemotional, none of which were proved.  He was in fact known to be a very loving father.

Being a loving father brings us to another invention of BF Skinner, and that is the Air Crib.  This crib replaced the wooden bars and open environment, for a baby bed with glass walls, temperature and humidity controls.  He believed this would improve child rearing, and make it easier for the mother when all elements for the baby are at a perfect measure.  This stirred up quite a bit of controversy as people thought it was an unusual form of punishment for the child.  A rumor even developed declaring that Skinner used his own daughter for experimentation, and she eventually went ‘insane’ and took her own life.  This however turned out to be just a rumor that made his healthy and living daughter “very angry”. 

How is Operant Conditioning used today?

Operant Conditioning can be used to quit smoking as well as other addictive behavior by implementing the subject with punishment before the addiction actually sets in, and to reward the subject with each small step toward healthier choices. 

Operant Conditioning is also used in classrooms with the use of positive and negative reinforcement, such as giving a reward, or taking an unpleasant situation away, however it is important to note that the reinforcement must immediately follow the good behavior for it to be effective.

Operant Conditioning in early childhood such as positive and negative reinforcement has also shown to be quite effective, however it is important to reward the behavior immediately after the act, otherwise they may turn to undesirable behavior in hopes of receiving the reward.

BF Skinner was and still is a key role in psychology and behaviorism.  His findings and inventions have left lasting impressions on scientists and psychology followers alike.  Creatively following some of his theories on behavioral modification can absolutely improve situations at school, work and even home.  Although some of his theories have led to controversy, his contribution to the psychology field is legendary.





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