Burrhus Frederic Skinner believed that the mind was important. He felt that behavior could be observed so that reactions could be studied in its complexity. In the 1920s, classical conditioning was the emphasis of behaviorism theory, but BF Skinner felt like the answers provided were too simplistic. This led him to develop his theory on operant conditioning.
What is an operant? It is an intentional action that effects the surrounding environment or society. The BF Skinner behaviorism theory looks to identify the actions that are taken to identify why some operant behaviors are more common than others.
The 3 Types of Responses in the BF Skinner Behaviorism Theory
Skinner defined operant conditioning by the ability of a person to change their behavior based on the use of a reinforcement. If the reinforcement is given after a desired response, then the mind can train itself to repeat a behavior to anticipate a similar result in the future.
Based on the responses that Skinner could observe through his process of operant conditioning, he was able to identify three specific types of responses or operants that can follow a behavior.
1. Neutral. These responses would not increase or decrease the probability that a behavior would be repeated.
2. Reinforcers. This type of response would increase the likelihood of a repetitive behavior. A reinforcer can be positive or negative to encourage the repetitive response.
3. Punishers. This is the response that would decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. The goal of a punishment is to weaken the behavior so it becomes less desirable in the future.
These responses are seen in virtually every aspect of our society today. Parents use reinforcers and punishers to create a desired response. Children test out specific behaviors with their parents and learn from the positive or negative consequences which result from those behaviors. Employers use them to keep employees productive and following corporate procedures.
Skinner showed that it wasn’t just humans who were susceptible to operant conditioning. Virtually any creature with a mind could be taught specific behaviors through the conditioning process. He proved his theory with his work on what would be come to be called the “Skinner Box.”
How Skinner Proved Positive Reinforcement Was a Training Mechanism
BF Skinner developed a box which contained a lever on the side of it. He would then place a rat inside the box. Whenever the rat interacted with the lever, either intentionally or unintentionally, a piece of food would drop into the box for the rat to eat. After a few times of being placed in the box, every rat would learn to go straight to the lever so they could get food right away.
The consequence of pressing the lever created a positive reward. This encouraged the rats to keep pressing the lever, over and over again, so they could receive more food. Through this action, Skinner was able to provide that a positive reinforcement helps to strengthen a specific behavioral response.
Negative reinforcement also strengthens a behavior. Skinner ran an electrical current through his box, but this time, the rats would need to shut off the current by activating the lever. The consequence of being able to stop receiving the current was enough to encourage the behavior of pulling the lever.
Learned responses can come from this type of activity as well. Skinner eventually taught the rats that if they pushed a button when a light came on, they could stop the electrical current from going into the box in the first place.
The Problem with Punishment and the BF Skinner Behaviorism Theory
Punishment does weaken behavior, but it doesn’t eliminate it. A punished behavior becomes suppressed. It will typically return if there isn’t a threat of punishment present. This suppression increases personal aggression, reduces a person’s ability to cope with difficult circumstances, and can be the foundation of fear.
Punishment essentially tells someone what they should not do. It’s the opposite of a positive reinforcement, which tells someone what they should do.
Because both operants can modify behavior, the positive reinforcements in the behaviorism theory is preferred because it creates meaningful change. Behaviors are modified because the reward centers of the mind are activated. People decide that they want to change because they want the reward.
Punishments do not guide someone toward change. Through fear, the person decides that they will stop the unwanted behavior while in the presence of someone who exerts control over them. When that control is released, the suppression is eliminated, and the behavior returns once again. There is no desire to change.
The BF Skinner behaviorism theory helped to show that feelings, behaviors, and actions are interconnected. By understanding what causes a choice to be made, it becomes possible to repeat positive choices and avoid negative ones.