Written by: Kelly L. Hunter
Ever wonder why animals and humans behave in the ways that they do? You are not alone; B.F. Skinner asked himself these same questions which inspired him to find an answer. Skinner, has been said to be one of psychology’s most influential contributors; a kind of pioneer of operant conditioning. You may be asking yourself “what is operant conditioning?”
Operant conditioning is a process of learning where a person and/or animal emit certain behaviors in order to avoid different forms of punishment or to earn and receive rewards for good behaviors. Skinner focused greatly in this particular area of study and many psychologists who came after him utilize his tools and theories as a guide while conducting their own research today.
Such devices as the Skinner box (named after Skinner himself) are still being used for modern day research with animals. This is a device used to “reduce or eliminate the opportunities for making irrelevant responses, thereby boosting the chances that the correct response will occur” (Morris & Maistro, 2005, p 202).
Punishment in theory is when undesired behavior is corrected by-way-of reinforcement. Skinner believed that positive reinforcement will increase the chances of reoccurring behavior whereas negative reinforcement decreases the chances of repetition in behavior. It should be noted that Skinner believed that punishment is only a temporary solution to a problem and that it does not teach new behaviors (Morris & Maistro, 2005).
Humans and animals both display varieties of diverse behaviors and many times this can depend on one’s environmental surroundings. Skinner found that superstitious behavior can also be found in both species and proved this theory to be true. Morris and Maistro (2005) state that, “Whenever something we do is followed closely by a reinforcer, we will tend to repeat the action—even if the reinforcement is not produced directly by what we have done” (p 198).
B.F. Skinner’s theories opened up doors of opportunity for psychologists around the world and provided them with the necessary stepping stones to further explore human and animal behaviors alike. Without Skinner’s tremendous contribution, modern psychology would not be what it is today. It is possible that B.F. Skinner was the most influential man of all time, at least where psychology is concerned.
Morris, C.G. and Maistro, A.A. “Psychology: An Introduction” Prentice-Hall (2005) 12th (ed).