B.F Skinner

Parents have known that children respond to a system of rewards and punishments. This is a simplification of the theories of famed American behaviourist B.F Skinner would be an understatement. Skinner’s behavioural theory was largely set forth in his first book ‘Behaviour of Organisms’. Here he gave a systematic description of the manner in which environmental variables control behaviour. He distinguished two types of behaviour, which are controlled in different ways. First respondent behaviours , which are elicited by stimuli. These behaviours may be modified through respondent conditioning, this can also be called “Pavlovian conditioning”. In this form of conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with an eliciting stimulus. Operant behaviours however are ‘emitted’ meaning that initially they are not induced by any particular stimulus. Respondents can be measured by their strength or their latency. In contrast to this, Operants can be measured by their rate.

Bfskinner quote

B.F Skinner’s: Operant Conditioning

Skinner is the father of Operant conditioning, but his work was mainly based around Thorndike’s law of effect. Skinner invented the term operant conditioning in 1938. Operant conditioning is a concept in psychology, where the antecedent, or the consequence of an individual’s behaviour is used to influence the occurrence and form of this behaviour.

The main tools in Skinner's operant conditioning are ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ reinforcement. Skinner introduced a new term of the Law of effect- Reinforcement. Behaviour is reinforced and it tends to be repeated, or strengthened. In contrast, behaviour that is not reinforced tends to die out or become extinct. Skinner (1948) studied operant conditioning .

Skinner identified three different types of responses, these include, neutral Operants, Reinforcers, and punishers. Neutral Operants are responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a particular behaviour being repeated. Reinforcers are responses from the environment that only increase the probability of a particular behaviour being repeated. Lastly, Punishers are responses from the environment that only decrease the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated. This response weakens behaviours.

Positive Reinforcement

Skinner demonstrated how positive reinforcement worked by placing a hungry rat in the ‘skinner box’. The box contained a lever in the side of it, as the rat moved around the box, it would unintentionally knock the lever. Once the lever was knocked, a food pellet would drop into the container beside the lever. The rats then learned that by moving next to the lever, resulted in food being dropped. The rats understanding of the lever aided Skinners study, as this ensured that the rats repeated this action over and over again. To conclude, Positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is a term described by B.F. Skinner in his theory of operant conditioning. In this type of reinforcement, a response or behaviour is strengthened by stopping or removing a negative outcome r aversive stimulus.

Negative reinforcement can be an effective way to strengthen a desired behaviour. however this behaviour is most effective when reinforcers are presented immediately after a behaviour. If a long amount of time is left after the behaviour and the reinforcer, the response is likely to be weaker.  In some cases, while not all, behaviours that occur in the intervening time between the initial action and the reinforcer may also be strengthened.

Skinner demonstrated how negative reinforcement worked by simply placing a rat in his ‘skinner box’ and then subjecting it to an unpleasant electric current which caused the rat a level of discomfort. As the rat moved about the box, it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately after it did so the electric current would be switched off. The rats quickly learned to go straight to the lever after a few times of being placed into the box. The consequence of escaping the electric current ensured that they would repeat the action over and over again.  


Skinner even taught the rats to avoid the electric current by turning on a light just before the current was switched on. The rats soon learned to press the lever when the light came on because they knew this would stop the electric current being switched on. These two responses are known as Escape Learning and Avoidance Learning.

Skinner showed how both positive and negative reinforcement can work by simply placing a rat in the skinner box and using two different methods each time.

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