Burrhus Frederic Skinner

Do we behave the way we do because of free will, or is it because we have learned that behaving any other way will produce non-favorable results? B. F. Skinner founded his own school of experimental research psychology to examine this topic. He believed if we acted one way and the consequences were not good that people would learn by default to try another way until they found something that garnered the results they were seeking, then they would continue to behave that way. This was what he called the principle of reinforcement.

Skinner described operant conditioning as looking at the cause of a certain behavior and the consequences. His work on the topic of operant conditioning was based on Thorndike’s Law of Effect. (McLeod, 2007) This theory basically stated that any behavior that is not reinforced would typically die out. He tested his operant conditioning theory on animals by creating a box in which animals would be placed and the animals would learn to pull a lever for food to be dispensed or the floor of the box to shock them as a punishment.

The study was to see if the animals would learn which action would create the results they want: ie. the food. As stated by Skinner, there are three different types of operants (responses) that will follow a behavior; Neutral Operants, Reinforcers, and Punishers. He believed that we will learn to behave in the manner that makes the most favorable outcome. Skinner also used to pigeons to learn more about superstitious behavior.

Food would be delivered to the pigeons on a 15 second schedule. Some pigeons simply pecked around the cage or circled the cage. “These behaviors were labeled ‘superstitious’ because they were not instrumental to the delivery of the reinforcer but appeared to be strengthened adventitiously as they were occasionally reinforced by food. These adventitiously reinforced responses eventually filled the time between food deliveries. ”

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