B.F. Skinner's Theories: Overview

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  • 0:03 B.F.Skinner
  • 0:51 Skinner's Obsession…
  • 1:46 The Skinner Box
  • 3:08 Other Inventions
  • 4:55 Skinner's Legacy
  • 5:52 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tiffany Frye
B.F. Skinner was a psychologist who had a profound impact on the development of behaviorism and our understanding of the function of rewards and punishments. Learn about Skinner's theories and how his discoveries may be impacting your day-to-day life in this lesson.

B.F. Skinner

B.F. Skinner was one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. He founded the school of thought known as radical behaviorism, which built on and expanded the theory of behaviorism. Behaviorism was developed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a reaction to the theories of psychologists who were studying the interior events of the mind - things such as thoughts, feelings, perceptions, and unobservable emotions. Behaviorists rejected the study of such mental processes, claiming that they could not be studied objectively. Instead, behaviorism is the idea that psychology should concern itself exclusively with behavior. Skinner made huge contributions to behaviorism, conducting groundbreaking research in reinforcement and punishment and the study of behavior.

Skinner's Obsession With Pigeons

Everyone has their thing - maybe you like to play soccer or read novels. Skinner liked to train pigeons. During World War II, Skinner sought to train pigeons to guide bombs. He was able to get them to peck continuously at a target, even when in free fall and surrounded by loud noises. While the military decided to go with radar instead of pigeons, Skinner's work still proved useful: he learned that to train a pigeon to produce a desired behavior, he would need to reward it in certain ways. If you've ever trained a dog or a horse, you will know the importance of rewarding desired behaviors and punishing undesirable ones as reliably as possible. You can thank Skinner for much of the knowledge we now have about training animals. But have you ever thought of putting your dog or horse in a box to see if you could train them to do other behaviors that they might not normally do? Probably not. This is what Skinner did to develop his scientific theories of conditioning.

The Skinner Box

Skinner's childhood knack for building sailing ships came in handy when he decided to build his operant conditioning chamber, otherwise known as the Skinner box. The chamber was big enough for a rat or a pigeon to fit in comfortably and contained mechanisms with which to reinforce or punish the behavior of the animal. For example, a rat may be rewarded with a food pellet after pressing a bar, or it may be punished with a small shock of electricity if it does not press the bar. As you can probably imagine, because of the reward or punishment which followed, the rat learned to press the bar.

One of the hallmarks of Skinner's operant conditioning chamber was his cumulative recorder. The cumulative recorder was a simple device that recorded every response of the research subject. A line would steadily move further upward with each response. The slope of the line indicated the rate of response. With this, Skinner was able to demonstrate mathematically that the rate of response increased according to certain rewards and punishments. This was groundbreaking because, thus far, only conditioning of natural reflexes had been studied. Pavlov's dog is the classic example. The dog responds to its dinner bell by salivating because it associates the dinner bell with food. Pavlov insisted that the behavior depended on the stimulus coming before the action; Skinner proved that behavior could be controlled by a stimulus administered after the action.

Other Inventions

In 1943, Skinner's family was expecting a new baby, and in response, Skinner famously invented the controversial 'air crib' or 'baby tender.' The air crib was intended to ease his wife's burden of childcare by keeping the baby more comfortable in its crib. Unlike a normal crib, it was completely enclosed and had a controlled environment. The temperature and humidity were kept constant, and the crib was safer than a standard crib because it did not have bars that a baby could get its head or limbs stuck between. Skinner and his wife used the crib with their new daughter Deborah. It was successful, so Skinner attempted to market and produce the new crib. Unfortunately, the press misconstrued the nature of the crib, claiming that Skinner was keeping his baby in a box, just like his lab rats. In reality, Deborah only used the crib for sleeping, but the damage was done. Rumors spread about Skinner's supposed mistreatment of his baby, and the crib's success was thwarted.

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