Burrhus Frederick Skinner and behaviorism

Burrhus Frederick Skinner and behaviorism

The main difference between rats and people is that rats learn from experience. B. F. Skinner


  • 1. Background
  • 2 Its main influences
  • 3 The story of Walden Two (Walden Two)
  • 4 Skinner's Operating Psychology
  • 5 Examples of reinforcement in everyday life


F. Skinner was born in Pennsylvania on March 20, 1904. He was the eldest of two brothers; his brother died at 16 years old. He had a pleasant childhood and as a child, he liked being a retailer in the activities he did. I had a propensity to invent.

He describes this activity in his autobiography: β€œI was always building things. I built skates with motor, remote control cars, sleds and rafts pushed by a pole in shallow ponds. I made roundabout swings and slides. I built slingshot (spring in Mexico), bows and arrows, blowguns and water guns with bamboo canes and an old steam pot I made a small cannon with which I fired bullets of potatoes and carrots against the houses of the neighbors ... I worked for many years in the design of a continuous motion machine (It never worked) ”(Schellenberg, 1991, pp., 94-95). The metaphor of the human being seen as a machine that functioned as a predictable machine, was most likely due to the time spent creating and inventing their machines and artifacts.

He studied English literature at Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, wrote some fiction subjects, but was unsuccessful at that time. And, after that, he decided to study Psychology in Harvad in 1928.

He decided that, as literature had failed him (more than the other way around), he would study human behavior by applying the scientific method, and not those of fiction (Schultz & Schultz, 2010, p., 376).

His main influences

He had the influence of other thinkers, directly or indirectly: Charles Darwin (Theory of Evolution), Edward Thorndike (Trial and error and the Law of Effect), Ivan Petrovich Pávlov (Reflection orientation and Classical Conditioning), John B. Watson ( Behaviorism), which resulted in BF Skinner with its empirical Law of Effect, the Classic and Operator Conditioning.

It is important to note that each of their predecessors not only gave a different approach to the analysis of behavior, but each of them developed their own investigation procedures.

One of the most significant characteristics of behaviorism is that which is associated with the objective study of behavior. No room for mentalist concepts. Instead as an analysis unit it would be replaced by the classic: Stimulus-Response. Without escaping at the same time from the influence of Newton's third Law: to all Action corresponds a Reaction.

In Skinner's approaches, several postulates of behaviorism in general and those he proposed were sintered:

  • Consider the behavior as a product of particular features of the previous behavior.
  • The objective of psychology was to know those data and laws that, given the stimulus, psychology can predict the answer that will follow; or, on the other hand, given the answer, to be able to specify the nature of the effective stimulus.
  • β€œHe did not propose a theory of personality. He made no reference to the subjective internal states of behavior. He said that unconscious factors, defense mechanisms, as well as traits and other motivational aspects cannot be seen. The human being is an empty organism; that is, inside there is nothing that explains the behavior in scientific terms. He argued that psychologists should limit themselves to investigating the facts; that is, what they can see, manipulate or measure in the laboratory. From his point of view, Psychology is the science of behavior, of what organisms do. His study of behavior is the antithesis of the psychoanalytic theory of traits, the life cycle, the cognitive and the humanist. The difference does not only refer to the subject, but also to the methodology and objectives”(Schultz & Schultz, 2010, p., 374).

His restless, scientific and technological character, years later would lead him to invent his famous skinner box. To propose their reinforcement programs and a project in which he could demonstrate, that the pigeons could be trained to remote control a missile towards a specific target, as if it were an experienced human pilot. All this showed his interest in carrying out practical applications of scientific knowledge.

The interest in animal behavior goes back to his childhood. He took turtles, snakes, toads, lizards and chipmunks from pets. He would have been fascinated by pigeons that performed at a county fair. They ran across the stage, pushed a fire truck to a burning building and supported a ladder against a wall (Schultz & Schultz, 2010, p., 375).

Most likely Skinner's most important contribution was the concept called "molded or successive approximations."

The concept of "molding or successive approximations" is a method for the molding of operant behavior, which consists in reinforcing similar responses to the desired behavior. At the beginning, more or less approximate responses to the desired behavior are reinforced. Later only responses that closely approximate the desired behavior are reinforced. The process gradually leads to the desired behavior (APA, 2010, p., 312).

The Walden Two Story (Walden Two)

Men build society and society builds men. B. F. Skinner

Although the subjects of study for Skinner initially were rats and pigeons, during the 40s and 50s they were changed by humans. He used one of his daughters, to whom he designed a mechanical cradle, called it "air-crib". The "cradle of air" was a soundproof booth (the soundproofing means acoustic insulation from the outside) and with air conditioning where the baby was placed. The condition of the baby's crib, that did not need any blanket to be comfortable and to control the entry of air, did not allow the entry of germs. For the invention of said device Skinner was heavily criticized. However, it motivated him to think and design a utopian environment for the whole society, which was reflected in the form of a novel and was published under the title: "Walden Two".

In this novel a professor named Burris visits a utopian and scientifically planned society. The conversation between Burris and Frazier, the latter the creator and leader of the planned society, contained the issues to be faced in a scientific reconstruction of society.

Walden Dos is a controversial work. It is not in vain that he raises, thoroughly and without prejudice, such hot topics as the family crisis, the problem of freedom, the viability of democracy and many others, adopting, most of the time, revolutionary positions ( , 2019).

Skinner's Operating Psychology

The consequences of an act affect the probability of its occurrence again.. B. F. Skinner

From Skinner's perspective there was no difference between Social Psychology and other fields of Psychology. All psychology has to do with behavior and all behavior is a product of the environment in which it occurs. This applies to animal beings and to a greater or lesser extent also to humans, that is where human social learning is presented. This is known under this perspective as "operant psychology."

All behavior, in Skinner's opinion, is a function of stimulus events. So, the manifest behavior of the subjects is because they respond to environmental stimuli. The behavior is controlled by its consequences, that is, by what happens next.

But at the beginning of his career he established a distinction between two fundamentally different forms of behavior: "respondents" (mediated by the autonomic nervous system) and "operants" (mediated by the central nervous system).

  • Responding Behavior: is a response caused by a specific stimulus. This behavior is not learned, but occurs automatically and involuntarily. They are responses caused by certain environmental stimuli.
  • The operant behavior: It depends on reinforcement and is directly related to a physical stimulus. All responses are triggered by a specific stimulus. It is the behavior emitted spontaneously or voluntarily that acts on the environment in order to change it.

Other important concepts to understand Skinner's behavioral psychology

  • Reinforcement: Action to strengthen a response by introducing a reward, which increases the likelihood that it will be repeated.
  • Negative reinforcement: strengthening a response by eliminating an aversive stimulus.
  • Punishment: Application of an aversive stimulus after a response and which aims to reduce the likelihood of recurrence.
  • Extinction: Process of eliminating behavior by not providing reinforcement.
  • Reinforcement programs: Patterns or rates with which reinforcers are provided or retained.
    • Fixed interval reinforcement program: Provides the booster after the first response that occurs after a fixed interval has elapsed.
    • Fixed Rate Reinforcement Program: Boosters are only provided after the agency has issued a specific number of responses.
    • Variable interval reinforcement program: The booster can be delivered two hours after the first response has been issued, the next time an hour and a half after the broadcast and the third one two hours and 15 minutes later.
    • Variable Rate Reinforcement Program: It is based on an average number of responses among reinforcers, but the average can be very variable (Schultz & Schultz, 2010, pp., 377-388).

Examples of reinforcement in everyday life

Continuous reinforcement

(Reinforcement every time the answer is made)

  • Put money in the parking meter to avoid a fine.
  • Put coins in a vending machine to get candy or soda.
Fixed Relationship Program

(Reinforcement after a fixed number of responses).

Workers are paid piecework in the garment industry and can be paid a fee for every 100 stitched seams.
Variable Relationship Program

(Reinforcement after a variable number of responses)

Playing a slot machine: the machine is scheduled to pay after a certain number of responses have been made, but that number keeps changing. This type of calendar creates a constant response rate, because players know what if they play enough, they will win.
Fixed interval program

(Reinforcement after a fixed amount of time has passed)

You have an exam to come, and as time goes by and you have not studied, you have to make up for everything at a given time, and that means saturating yourself.
Variable Interval Program (Reinforcement of the first response after different amounts of time)Surprise questionnaires in a course cause a constant rate of study because you never know when they will occur, so you must be prepared all the time (Morris & Maisto, 1999, p., 208).

Final reflection

Although behaviorism had its peak since 1920 and for 60 more years, it is still applied in different areas of life: the management of superstitions, self-control, advertising, psychotherapy (therapy of successive approaches), education (for maintain control of the classroom in discipline and school achievement) and many more.

It is worth noting finally that pure behaviorism today has been replaced by cognitive behavioral orientation, which considers the organism as a thinking being, rather than as a purely reactive entity.


APA (2010) Concise Dictionary of Psychology, Mexico, Editorial El Manual Moderno.

Morris Ch. & Maisto A. (1999) Psychology An Introduction, USA, Prentice Hall. (2019) WALDEN DOS: Towards a scientifically constructed society, accessed September 9, 2019, online: //

Schellenberg J. (1991) The founders of social psychology, Madrid, Editorial Alliance.

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