• Burrhus Frederic Skinner
  • Born March 20, 1904
  • Died August 18, 1990
  • Received his BA in English and attempted to be a writer
  • Went back to school at Harvard and received his masters in psychology in 1930 and then his doctorate in 1931
  • One of the best psychology writers: Walden II, Behaviour of Organisms, Science Human Behaviour
  • Behaviourist psychologist who was involved in experimental psychology
  • Started his work from Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning and discovered operant conditioning


Operant Conditioning:

Operant conditioning refers to the organism “operating” on the environment which means that it is doing what it does without certain influences. During the “operating”, the organism will encounter a special kind of stimulus, called a reinforcing stimulus and this stimulus has the effect of increasing the operant, which is the behaviour that occurs right before the reinforcement does. The reinforcement could be positive or negative but is usually positive as it ensures that the behaviour will be repeated. B.F. Skinner created an experiment involving rats and food pellets and put them in what is known as a skinner box.

Experiment: A hungry rat is placed in an operant conditioning apparatus nicknamed the Skinner Box.

  • The rat will accidently press the lever in the Skinner box, but no food pellets will come because the lever is not connected to the pellets, as the researcher is establishing a control condition.
  • Next the lever is connected to the food pellets and each time the rat pushes the lever, a food pellet is expelled.
  • Next the food dispenser is disconnected from the lever, but the rat will continue pressing the lever for some time and this indicates that rat has been operant conditioned.
  • The lever pressing can actually continue indefinitely if occasional pellets are given and this occurs when partial reinforcement is given.

Partial Reinforcement:

  • Fixed interval , ex. once every minute
  • Variable interval, ex. after various intervals, averaging once a minute
  • Fixed ratio, ex. every 20 presses
  • Variable ratio, ex. after varying numbers of presses, averaging 20

*The variable ratio is the strongest of the partial reinforcement because responses continue the longest before they stop all together.

Positive Reinforcement: is when there’s an increase in behaviour by receiving anything that is pleasant (food pellets for hungry rat).

Negative Reinforcement: is when there’s an increase in behaviour by avoiding something unpleasant (rat pressing lever to avoid mild electric shock).

Punishment: is when there’s a decrease in behaviour by anything that is unpleasant.

Skinner found that the optimum period between response and reinforcement is about half a second, so almost immediately and this is very important because if parents wished to punish or reward their child, in order for it to be effective it should be done straight away. But even so he believed punishment was not the way to go, as it did not work as well as positive reinforcement or simply just ignoring the behaviour.

1. Punishment is simply less effective because it causes slower and less learned responses, it’s better to use a combination of reward (positive reinforcement) and withdrawal of reward (non-reinforcement).

2. Punishment often causes the individual to avoid being punished rather than stop the undesired behaviour.

3. Punishment can cause the individual to associate the punishment with the punisher rather than the behaviour.

4. Punishment may train an individual about what NOT to do, but it doesn’t train WHAT to do

* Each individual has his or her own needs therefore which reinforcement will “work” or not must be found by experimenting with that particular animal or person

B.F. Skinner realized that a lot of children labelled problematic or naughty were really just normal, healthy active children who have been brought up improperly. He believed that they’re teachers and parents and other role models gave attention to the child when they were being naughty, while they ignored the good behaviour of the child. He believed that this was not necessarily healthy as the child may grow up to be neurotic. He created the 3 stage method that he found to be affected on both humans and animals.

  • Define the goal (terminal behaviour)
  • Define the start (entering behaviour)
  • Positively reinforce each step (increment) in the desired direction while ignoring all other behaviour

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