Skinner's theory: content, main theses, features

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Skinner's theory: content, main theses, features
Skinner's theory: content, main theses, features

Burres Frederick Skinner was one of the most famous psychologists of his time. It was he who stood at the origins of the direction, which today in science is called behaviorism. Even today, his theory of learning plays an important role in psychology, pedagogy, and management.

Burres Frederick Skinner

Scientist experiments

Skinner's theory is detailed in one of his main works, which is called "The Behavior of Organisms". In it, the scientist outlines the principles of the so-called operant conditioning. The easiest way to understand these principles is to look at one of the scientist's most typical experiments. The weight of the rat was reduced to 80-90% of normal. It is placed in a special device, which is called the Skinner box. It provides the ability to perform only those actions that the observing experimenter can see and control.

rat in Skinner's experiment

The box has an opening through which food is fed to the animal. To get food, the rat must press the lever. This pressing in Skinner's theory is called an operant response. How does a rat manage to press this lever - with a paw,nose, or maybe tail, - it does not matter. The operational reaction in the experiment remains the same, since it causes only one consequence: the rat gets food. By rewarding the animal with food for a certain number of clicks, the researcher develops stable ways of responding in the animal.

Skinner Behavior Shaping

Prompt reaction in Skinner's theory is an arbitrary and purposeful action. But Skinner defines this purposefulness in terms of feedback. In other words, behavior is affected by certain consequences of the animal.

Skinner agreed with the views of scientists Watson and Thornadike on the dual nature of mental development. They believed that the formation of the psyche is influenced by two types of factors - social and genetic. Operant learning reinforces specific operations performed by the subject. In other words, genetic data is the basis on which socially determined behavior is built. Therefore, development, Skinner believed, is learning, due to certain environmental stimuli.

Skinner also believed that operant conditioning could be used not only to control the behavior of other subjects, but also in relation to one's own behavior. Self-control can be achieved by creating special conditions in which the desired behavior will be reinforced.

pigeons playing ping pong

Positive reinforcement

Operant learning in Skinner's theory of reinforcement is based onactive actions of the subject ("operations") carried out in a certain environment. If some spontaneous action becomes useful for fulfilling a certain need or achieving a goal, it is reinforced by a positive result. For example, a pigeon can learn a complex action - playing ping-pong. But only if this game becomes a means to get food. Reward in Skinner's theory is called reinforcement because it reinforces the most desired behavior.

types of incentives

Sequential and proportional reinforcement

But a pigeon cannot learn to play ping-pong unless the experimenter instructs it in this behavior through discriminatory learning. This means that the individual actions of the pigeon are reinforced by the scientist consistently, selectively. In B. F. Skinner's theory, reinforcement can be either randomly distributed, occurring at certain time intervals, or occur in certain proportions. Reward, distributed randomly in the form of periodic cash prizes, provokes gambling addiction in people. An incentive that occurs at regular intervals - a salary - helps a person stay in a certain service.

Proportional reward in Skinner's theory is such a powerful reinforcer that the animals in his experiments practically beat themselves to death trying to earn more tasty food. Unlike behavior reinforcement, punishment is negative.reinforcements. Punishment cannot teach a new behavioral pattern. It only causes the subject to continually avoid known operations followed by punishment.


The use of punishment usually has negative side effects. In Skinner's theory of learning, the following consequences of punishment are indicated: a high level of anxiety, hostility and aggressiveness, withdrawal into oneself. Sometimes punishment forces an individual to stop behaving in a certain way. But its disadvantage is that it does not promote positive behavior.

punishment process

Punishment often forces the subject not to abandon the unwanted behavior, but only to transform it into a hidden form that is not subject to punishment (for example, drinking alcohol at work). Of course, there are many cases where punishment seems to be the only way to suppress socially dangerous behavior that threatens the life or he alth of other people. But in normal situations, punishment is an ineffective means of influence, and it should be avoided whenever possible.

Skinner - author of the theory of learning in psychology

Pros and cons of Skinner's theory of operant learning

Let's consider the main advantages and disadvantages of Skinner's concept. Its advantages are as follows:

  • Rigorous hypothesis testing, control of additional factors affecting the experiment.
  • Recognizing the importance of situational factors,environmental parameters.
  • A pragmatic approach that has led to the creation of effective psychotherapeutic procedures for behavioral transformation.

Cons of Skinner's theory:

  • Reductionism. The behavior shown by animals is completely reduced to the analysis of human behavior.
  • Low validity due to laboratory testing. The results of experiments are difficult to transfer to the natural environment.
  • No attention is paid to cognitive processes in the process of forming a certain type of behavior.
  • Skinner's theory does not produce consistent, sustainable results in practice.

Motivation concept

Skinner also created a theory of motivation. Its main idea is that the desire to repeat this or that action is due to the consequences of this action in the past. The presence of certain incentives causes certain actions. If the consequences of this or that behavior are positive, then the subject will behave similarly in a similar situation in the future.

Skinner's motivation

His behavior will be repeated. But if the consequences of a certain strategy are negative, then in the future he will either not respond to certain incentives or change his strategy. Skinner's theory of motivation boils down to the fact that repeated repetitions of certain results lead to the formation of a specific behavioral setting in the subject.

Personality and concept of learning

From Skinner's point of view, personality is the experiencewhich is acquired by the individual during his life. Unlike, for example, Freud, supporters of the concept of learning do not consider it necessary to think about the mental processes that are hidden in the human mind. Personality in Skinner's theory is a product, for the most part shaped by external factors. It is the social environment, and not the phenomena of inner mental life, that determine personal characteristics. Skinner considered the human psyche to be a "black box". It is impossible to examine emotions, motives and instincts in detail. Therefore, they must be excluded from the experimenter's observations.

shaping behavior

Skinner's theory of operant learning, on which the scientist worked for many years, was supposed to sum up his extensive research: everything a person does and what he is in principle is determined by the history of rewards and punishments received by him.

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