B. F. Skinner
Episode #1 of the course “Influential Psychologists Throughout History”
Burrhus Frederic Skinner (B.F. Skinner) was an extremely well-known behavioral psychologist. His most famous work is based on the idea of positive and negative reinforcement. He believed that studying behavior rather than attempting to guess at internal mental processes was a much more productive way to study individuals. Understanding behavior, for Skinner, meant that we should study the causes of an action and its consequences. He termed his approach “operant conditioning.”
He determined that behavior that is reinforced will likely be repeated, while behavior that is not reinforced will eventually stop. Skinner used animals to test his theories, which hypothesized that he could change behavior based on positive or negative reinforcement and punishment. For his tests, he put the animals in what would come to be known as a “Skinner box.” Skinner would reward the animals with a treat if they performed a task correctly, and he would punish the animals if they did not do the task correctly.
Skinner developed three responses (or operants) that are a consequence of behavior. First, there were neutral operants. These neither decrease nor increase the likelihood that a behavior will be repeated. Reinforcers would increase the probability that a behavior recurs, while punishers would decrease the likelihood that a behavior happens again Reinforcers can be either positive or negative, but punishers are always negative. A positive reinforcer is like receiving a treat. A negative reinforcer takes something away if the behavior is correctly performed. For example, the animal in the Skinner box was forced to walk over an electric grid. The electricity was constantly on until the animal pushed a lever, after which the painful shocks vanished. Taking away this negative aspect was a reinforcer. Negative reinforcement and punishment are sometimes difficult to distinguish.
Skinner’s research was groundbreaking and is still used today to control and modify behavior, particularly in children. In fact, teachers often study various forms of Skinner’s ideas to help children learn and to keep control in their classrooms.
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