In detail

Skinner's box experiment

Skinner's box experiment

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

Burrhus Frederick Skinner, born in 1904, in Pennsylvania (USA). He recorded in the history of psychology one of the most famous experiments in reference to learning: Skinner's box experiment. To do this, he used an adapted box and pigeons. Skinner managed to explain a part of animal and human learning thanks to his experiment with animals. Specifically, the psychologist investigated the Operative Conditioning.

As defined by Ardila (1981), "operant conditioning is a process of exercising control over the behavior of an organism in a certain environment, through the application of reinforcement". Reinforcement is an event that is followed by the behavior and alters the likelihood of such behavior occurring. For example, if the pigeon presses a disc and receives food, the behavior of pressing the disc will tend to increase each time the animal wants to eat. In this type of conditioning, the individual learn to maintain or eliminate behaviors based on the consequences that these behaviors represent for him.


  • 1 Skinner box experiment
  • 2 Skinner box experiment and game addiction
  • 3 Skinner, his daughter and the controversy
  • 4 Other applications of the Skinner box experiment
  • 5 Bibliography

Skinner's box experiment

Skinner designed a box to experience operant conditioning, also called instrumental. Its objective was to measure how animals reinforced (or not) their behavior in relation to the consequence of their actions. What does this mean? In the box was a small disk. Every time the pigeon pecked the disk, it obtained small balls of food. The animal, through the search, went through the box until by "chance" pressed the disk and obtained food. What happened? Than the behavior of pressing the disc increased every time the animal wanted to eat.

For this experiment, Skinner kept the pigeons in three quarters of their weight so that they were always hungry. In this way, food was used as an automatic reward. The animal was studied in a box that was easily adapted. The number of times the pigeon pecked the disk was measured through a graph. The dove learned that pecking the disk produced a reward. Thus, pecking behavior was studied in relation to the frequency with which the pigeon obtained a reward.

In Skinner's words, "The main issue is what we call reinforcement programs. And that can be programmed so that the pigeon receives a reward every time it does something. Normally we use the pigeon's response to peck a small disk at a small point on the wall and reward it with food ". However, Skinner introduced differences regarding the reward. As he himself said, "It is not reinforced every time, but we do it every ten times or once a minute".

The objective of Skinner with these variations was to study the different behaviors of the pigeon. The most striking thing is that the researcher extrapolated the results to human behaviors, specifically, with gambling addiction. What did Skinner find out about the game? Why the game can become an addiction?

Skinner box experiment and game addiction

Skinner states that "There are many forms of programs (variants of the experiment) and each one has its special effect. And here is a good example that can be extrapolated from the pigeons to the human case. Because one of the programs, which is very effective with pigeons, is what we call a variable rate program. And it is what is at the base of all gaming machines. And it has the same effect ".

The pigeon can become a "pathological player" just like a person. Skinner refers to other explanations, which he says are unsuccessful in explaining gambling addiction. The researcher ensures that "We disagree with the view that players punish themselves or play because they feel emotion when they do, or anything similar. People play for the reinforcement program that follows ". The program consists of reinforcing the behavior from time to time. In this way, the person has the feeling that from one moment to another he will get the prize.

Skinner, his daughter and the controversy

Skinner was not without controversy. He built a box-shaped cradle in which it was rumored that he was experimenting with his daughter Deborah. After having his first child, he realized that the child's care was very laborious. When his wife got pregnant with a girl, decided to design a crib to facilitate the care of children and minimize the work of parents.

The box was about two meters high one meter wide. The walls were insulated to prevent external noise from entering. The baby could sit on an inner mattress one meter from the floor and could see the outside through a glass that went up and down. Inside, the box was equipped with a humidifier, a heater and an air filter that circulated hot and fresh air inside the cabin. The new type of crib, no doubt, offered obvious comforts. Being inside heated, the baby was in diapers, so you only needed to change the diaper. He also enjoyed greater security thanks to the glass, both to prevent falls and to prevent the presence of germs.

Baby in a box

The mattress on which the baby was perched was a long canvas attached to rollers. Thanks to this, when it got dirty, Skinner turned a lever and the dirty cloth came out while a clean one came in. Skinner was so happy with his invention that he decided to publish it in the magazine Ladies Home Journal. However, despite being a fairly practical invention, something twisted. The psychologist titled his article "Baby care can be Modernized", but the magazine changed its name to "Baby in a Box". In addition, the publication was accompanied by a photo of the psychologist's daughter in the crib. A title and a little successful photo that ended up unleashing the controversy.

What Skinner intended to be a modern crib to facilitate childcare, became a source of rumors about a box to condition babies as if they were rats or pigeons. The rumor began to spread about his experiments. Skinner tried to deny everything, but his efforts were useless. A small group of followers noticed the invention and even thought about commercializing it, but the general rejection was so great that it was relegated to oblivion. Although over the years, her daughter denied all the rumors about her father, still today, there are doubts about whether Skinner experimented with his daughter in that crib.

Other applications of the Skinner box experiment

Generalization, discrimination and extinction

Through this experiment, Skinner studies the processes by which instrumental responses are acquired, as well as processes such as generalization, discrimination and extinction of certain behaviors. For example, let's imagine that three discs of different colors are introduced in the box: red, blue and green. If the pigeon pecks any disk to get food, we talk about generalization. That is to say, has generalized his behavior from one disc to others.

Discrimination is that the pigeon learns that it will only be rewarded if it pecks a disc of a certain color. For example, every time you peck the red disk you are provided with food, but if you peck the blue and green you get no reward. In this way, the pigeon, through discrimination, will learn that if it wants food, it will have to peck the red disk. On the other hand, the extinction is to eliminate any reinforcement to suppress pecking behavior. If the pigeon pecks a disc and for several trials does not get food, stop emitting its pecking response.


The psychologist also investigated the molding. With this term, the process through which behaviors that approximate objective behavior are reinforced. Because the behavior that is pursued cannot always be achieved at the first, it is necessary to condition the behavior that approximates it.


On the other hand, Skinner also brought operant conditioning to therapy. The best known methods are "chip economy" and "dislike therapy". To apply operant conditioning in therapy, it is necessary to analyze the reinforcements and stimuli that lead a person to have a specific behavior. Through the modification of these stimuli and reinforcements a change of behavior for another would be achieved.


Skinner, B. F. (1975). The behavior of the organisms. Barcelona: Fontanella.

Related tests
  • Depression test
  • Goldberg depression test
  • Self-knowledge test
  • how do others see you?
  • Sensitivity test (PAS)
  • Character test