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B. F. Skinner

BF Skinner's theory: behaviorism and operant conditioning

B. F. Skinner 

BF Skinner

B. F. Skinner ( Susquehanna , 20 as March as 1904 – Cambridge , 18 as August as 1990 ) was a psychologist , social philosopher , inventor , author and American . Drove a pioneering work in experimental psychology and advocated behaviorism , which considers the behavior as a function of environmental reinforcement stories. He wrote controversial papers in which he proposed the widespread use of psychological behavior modification techniques , mainly operant conditioning , to improve society and increase human happiness , as a form of social engineering 

Biography 

Skinner was born in rural Susquehanna, Pennsylvania , United States , son of Grace and William Skinner, a lawyer. He became an atheist after a Christian teacher tried to calm his fear of hell, which his grandmother had described. 6 His brother Edward, two and a half years younger, died at sixteen of a brain hemorrhage . He was part of Hamilton College in New York with the intention of becoming a writer. After graduating, Skinner spent a year in Greenwich Village trying to train as a fiction writer, but he soon became disillusioned with his literary skills. He thought he had little experience and that he lacked a strong personal perspective to write with. During this period, which he later called “the dark year,” he read An Outline of Philosophy , by Bertrand Russell , in which Russell discussed the behavioral philosophy of psychologists, especially John B. Watson .

After his frustrated attempt as a writer, Skinner began to be interested in people’s behaviors and actions, which led him to study psychology at Harvard University (which at that time was not an institution at the forefront of psychology), graduating and taking a doctorate in 1931. He became part of that institution as a researcher in 1936, and later, he developed his teaching activity at the University of Minnesota and then at Indiana , and then returned to Harvard as a professor in 1948, where he would practice rest of his life

In 1948 , he wrote the book Walden Two .

Skinner was the subject of many awards throughout his life. In 1968, he received the National Medal of Science by President Lyndon B. Johnson . Three years later, he was awarded the Gold Medal of the American Psychological Foundation, and in 1972, he was awarded the Humanist of the Year award from the American Humanist Association . Just eight days before his death, he received the first mention for a life contributing to psychology by the American Psychological Association . 9

Behaviorism 

The pigeon’s superstition 

Pigeon’s superstition is an already classic Skinner experiment that was carried out in 1948 . Eight hungry pigeons participated in this experiment, which were introduced in the so-called Skinner box . In it, the pigeons had food at regular intervals regardless of the response they issued. However, in this experiment an evident conditioning was observed in all the pigeons.

Pigeon's superstition

An important aspect of this experiment was the conditioned responses that the pigeons adopted. For example, one of the pigeons learned to turn counterclockwise around the box, another pigeon stuck its head to one of the upper corners in a very characteristic way and a third subject developed the response of shaking the head.

Each pigeon developed its own idiosyncratic response . So much so that it gave the impression that the pigeons behaved in such a particular way because they believed that their behavior would cause the appearance of food. Nothing is further from reality. It is for this reason that this behavior was called superstitious.

Skinner’s explanation of this phenomenon appealed to the reinforcement received: he understood that whatever the response the subject had just made just before the administration of the food (the reinforcement) would be reinforced by the reward. Otherwise, of the multiple responses that the pigeons emitted before the presentation of the meal, the result, coincidentally, adjacent to the reward, would be reinforced. Hence, each pigeon will perform its particular response (idiosyncratic). It is important to note that this procedure is not, strictly speaking, an operant conditioning procedure . It is a classic conditioning procedure .The scientific literature offers experiments whose results invite you to question the conclusion that Skinner obtained. On the one hand it has been found that, in a procedure such as that used by Skinner, relatively specific patterns of behavior are generated that are a function of the proximity to the enhancer and the animal species used in the experiment.In particular, some researchers have observed that all pigeons develop identical answers, ie not idiosyncratic. However, it is also possible to find other results that support Skinner’s explanation by finding that each pigeon develops its own distinctive behavior.

Be that as it may, superstition is a more or less common behavior in human behavior. The ritual of changing one’s luck to the cards is usual. A few random accidental connections between a ritual and favorable consequences are sufficient to establish sustained behavior despite the fact that there is no causal reinforcement. These behaviors have no real effect on the fate of a subject, just as in the case where the pigeon was fed regardless of its behavior.

BF Skinner’s behavioral theory

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904-1990) was an important American psychologist, inventor and writer recognized worldwide for contributing scientific rigor to psychology. In 1938 he wrote his first study called ” The conduct of organisms: an experimental analysis [1] ” and was putting on paper everything he studied until, in 1974, he summarized his work in a famous work called ” On Behaviorism [2 ] ”

In this book, Skinner explains the fundamentals of behavior analysis and how his experiments with animals can be extrapolated to psychological therapy in humans. The author explains how psychology can be understood from an operating point of view and how our behavior affects our thoughts.

The simple conditioning of Watson and Pavlov

As we mentioned earlier, behavioral psychology was born years before Skinner published his studies. Two great pioneers of this branch of psychology with John Watson and Ivan Pavlov studied what we know today as simple conditioning.

Simple conditioning is a procedure by which we can induce a reflex or a response to an animal (and in some cases, to a person). With experiments like that of Pavlov’s dogs or the induction of a phobia to a Watson child, it was intended to demonstrate that the human mind could be measured, observed and modified through behavior.

If you want to know more about the beginnings of behaviorism, we recommend you read the following article: the process of classical conditioning .

Behavioral psychology

The four basic principles of behavioral psychology are:

  1. Psychology is a science , therefore it will use an empirical and demonstrable experimental methodology.
  2. This methodology is characterized by using variables that can be measured (example: measuring anxiety by the number of beats per minute)
  3. The results of experiments performed in a laboratory can be extrapolated to real life.
  4. The behavior is learned , there is no form of innatism (total rejection of other branches of psychology)

Skinner’s box

Officially called “operant conditioning chamber,” Skinner’s box is one of the best known inventions in the history of psychology. It was created with the objective of demonstrating that the behavior of an animal could be induced and modified (in the first place, it used a rat) by external stimuli. The box is one of the pillars on which Skinner’s well-known behaviorism is based .

Parts of the box

The box had the following elements:

  • Two lights
  • A speaker
  • A button
  • Electrified soil (in some cases)
  • Food dispenser

Skinner box operation

  1. rat was introduced into the box (it was usually deprived of food before so that its motivation to feed was greater)
  2. The rat experiments in its new environment until it discovers the button and presses it . Automatically a food unit ( pellet ) left the dispenser after the button was pressed
  3. The rat, motivated to get more food, modified his behavior and quickly learned to press the button to receive food (behavior-stimulus association and positive reinforcement)
  4. Conditioning could also occur by omission of a negative stimulus ( negative reinforcement ). In this case, the rat was introduced into the box with the electrified floor, if the button was pressed, the current stopped passing through the floor. In this way, the rat learned to press the button to stop feeling pain.

Skinner and operant conditioning

As we have seen, operant conditioning is somewhat more complicated than the simple conditioning of Watson and Pavlov. In this case, the association is not between a stimulus and a reflex but it is between a stimulus, a behavior and a reinforcement.

That is, in the case of operant conditioning, learning is required about what happens after the behavior. For example, in the case of Skinner’s box, the rat learns that after pressing the button he receives a prize.

Positive and negative reinforcement

As behaviorism is based on measuring behaviors, everything that happens in Skinner’s conditioning is thoroughly analyzed and categorized. Therefore, we can distinguish two types of reinforcements in BF Skinner’s theory of operant behaviorism and conditioning:

  • Positive reinforcement , an element that acts as a prize, usually satisfies some basic need or generates a pleasant response.
  • The negative reinforcement , an element that generates a response of pain, displeasure or discomfort, this factor acts as a punishment.

We can find examples of operant conditioning in our day to day . For example, we strive to study because we have learned to receive a reward later (good grades and recognition) or, we take a medication to avoid a headache, just as the rat presses a button to avoid the pain of electrified soil.

Criticisms of Skinner’s behaviorism

Despite being a measurable and empirical model, BF Skinner’s theory of behaviorism and conditioning is quite reductionist to talk about the human mind.

The main criticism of behaviorism is the lack of internal vision and the simplicity of its model, it is unlikely that the human psyche can be measured and understood through experiments in other animals.

Therefore, today the cognitive-behavioral model is proposed , which unites the cognitive branch (thought) with behaviorism. If you want to know more about the therapeutic application of this new model, we recommend you read the following article about third generation therapies .

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