The psychologist, B.F. Skinner, is credited with the development of the operant conditioning theory, which is sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning and is considered to be one of the fundamental concepts in behavioral psychology. What is the BF Skinner operant conditioning theory and how did it come about?
B.F. Skinner was a professor of Psychology at Harvard University between 1958 and 1974. Part of his studies involved the experimental analysis of behavior, including the key research paper he wrote based on his analysis of human behavior: Verbal Behavior.
During the course of his research, Skinner concluded that behavior was not caused by internal motivations and thoughts, but was instead the result of external and observable factors. He coined the term “operant conditioning” to explain how learned behavioral traits are acquired through repeated exposure to environmental triggers.
What are the key components of the BF Skinner operant conditioning theory?
The operant conditioning theory developed by Skinner describes a type of psychological learning whereby the subject’s behavior is modified once that behavior becomes associated with a stimulus. Such behavior modification can be achieved by behavioral reinforcement or punishment.
- Reinforcement is designed to increase or strengthen a particular behavior, and according to Skinner, there can be positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement.
An example of positive reinforcement (reinforcement) would be to award a prize if a child successfully completes a task. The child is then more likely to repeat the behavior.
Negative reinforcement (escape) of a behavioral trait involves removing an unpleasant outcome if the correct behavior is displayed. For example, if a pupil remains quiet throughout the lesson, the lunchtime detention is cancelled.
- Punishment is designed to decrease a behavioral trait by presenting an unpleasant response following the behavior. As seen in the reinforcement concept of operant conditioning, there can be positive punishment or negative punishment.
Positive punishment (punishment) is where behavior is rewarded with an unpleasant event. For example, a pupil is late for school and they are given a detention as punishment in order to discourage further tardiness.
Negative punishment (penalty) involves the removal of something nice in response to the behavior. For example, a child is late home from the park one evening and therefore he is not allowed to play out with his friends after school for two nights as punishment.
The BF Skinner operant theory also describes the concepts of extinction, avoidance learning, noncontingent reinforcement, shaping, and chaining.
- Extinction is where a previous behavior that yielded positive results no longer results in any consequences. Such behavior will eventually recur with less frequency if there is neither reinforcement nor punishment.
- Avoidance learning is where you learn that certain behavior prevents something bad from happening.
- Noncontingent reinforcement rewards behavior with continual reinforcing stimuli irrespective of whether the behavior continues.
- Shaping involves positive reinforcement each time the desired response grows in accuracy.
- Chaining rewards sequential responses with a view to encouraging complex behavior sequences.
Skinner also noted that there are various factors capable of affecting the behavioral consequences, including satiation or deprivation, immediacy, contingency, and size.