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Skinner's Research On Operant Behavior And Operant Conditioning

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Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born and raised in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. During high school, Skinner developed a interest in scientific reasoning from his studying the works of Francis Bacon. He went on to receive a B.A. in English literature in 1926 from Hamilton College. After earning his undergraduate degree, he decided to become a writer. During this time, he wrote a few short newspaper articles and quickly grew to dislike his own writings despite receiving needed encouragement and mentorship from the poet Robert Frost. While working at a bookstore as a clerk, Skinner read the studies of Pavlov and Watson, which became a turning point in his life and career.

Skinner decided to abandon his career as a novelist and entered the psychology graduate program at Harvard University. After receiving his Ph.D. from Harvard in 1931, Skinner worked for the next 5 years at Harvard under the fellowship program. During this period, he continued his research on operant behavior and operant conditioning. He married Yvonne Blue in 1936, and the couple went on to have two daughters, Julie and Deborah. Skinner spent a portion of his time inventing. A couple of these inventions were the skinner box and the baby tender.

While at Harvard, Skinner became interested in studying human behavior in a scientific way. He developed what he referred to as an operant conditioning apparatus, which later become known as a “Skinner box”. The device was a chamber that contained a bar or key that an animal could press in order to receive food, water, or some other form of reinforcement. This was also the time that he also invented the cumulative recorder, a device that recorded responses as a sloped line. By looking at the slope of the line, which indicated the rate of response, Skinner was able to see that response rates depended upon what happened after the animal pressed the bar. That is, higher response rates followed rewards while lower response rates followed a lack of rewards. The device also allowed Skinner to see that the schedule of reinforcement that was used also influenced the rate of response. Using this device, he found that behavior did not depend on the preceding stimulus as Watson and Pavlov maintained. Instead, Skinner found that behaviors were dependent on what happens after the response. Skinner called this operant behavior.

The Baby Tender was an invention by skinner and is well laid out in the very well article, stating In 1943, B.F. Skinner also invented the “Baby Tender” at the request of his wife. He created an enclosed heated crib with a plexiglass window in response to his wife’s request for a safer alternative to traditional cribs. Due to bad press and what was perceived as an overly clinical experience for the child, Skinner was admonished for his invention, as outlined in the article, “Ladies Home Journal” printed an article on the crib with the title “Baby in a Box,” contributing in part to some misunderstanding over the crib’s intended use. A later incident also led to further misunderstandings over Skinner’s baby crib. “As often happens with rumors they grew and unfortunately became rather ghastly” the article goes on to say. In her 2004 book Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychology Experiments of the Twentieth Century, author Lauren Slater mentioned the oft-cited rumor that the baby tender was actually used as an experimental device. The rumors were that Skinner’s daughter had served as a subject and that she had committed suicide as a result. This of course was nonsense but it led to a ferocious rebuttal of the rumors by Skinner’s very much alive daughter Deborah. Skinner also developed a math teaching machine after attending his daughter’s math class in 1953. Skinner noticed that none of the students received any sort of immediate feedback.

Some students struggled while others finished quickly but really didn’t learn anything new. Instead, Skinner believed that the best approach would be to create some sort of device that would shape behavior. Using the basis for operant conditioning he used incremental feedback until a desired response was made. This machine offered immediate feedback although no skills were learned. The article noted that eventually, he was able to develop a machine that delivered incremental feedback and presented material in a series of small steps until students acquired new skills, a process known as programmed instruction. Skinner later published a collection of his writings on teaching and education titled The Technology of Teaching.

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Skinners contributions to psychology are numerous. The article outlines his career saying “Skinner was a prolific author, publishing nearly 200 articles and more than 20 books. In a 2002 survey of psychologists, he was identified as the most influential 20th-century psychologist.” Behaviorism is no longer a dominant school of thought, Skinner’s work in operant conditioning is still vital today. Mental health professionals often utilize operant techniques when working with clients, teachers frequently use reinforcement and punishment to shape behavior in the classroom, and animal trainers rely heavily on these techniques to train dogs and other animals. Skinner’s legacy has left both a lasting mark on psychology and numerous other fields ranging from philosophy to education. Skinner’s biggest focus was on operant conditioning. The article states that in Skinner’s operant conditioning process, “an operant referred to any behavior that acts on the environment.” He would contrast operant behaviors with respondent behaviors, which he described as anything that occurs reflexively or automatically such as pivoting when stepping on a sharp object.

Skinner identified reinforcement as any event that strengthens the behavior it follows. The two types of reinforcement he identified were positive reinforcement (favorable outcomes such as reward or praise) and negative reinforcement (the removal of unfavorable outcomes). Punishment would play an important role in the operant conditioning process. According to Skinner, “punishment is the application of an adverse outcome that decreases or weakens the behavior it follows.” Positive punishment involves an unwanted outcome while negative punishment involves removing a favorable outcome following a behavior. Skinner in his studies of operant conditioning developed the schedules of reinforcement these four are fixed and variable ratio, and fixed and variable interval. Fixed-ratio schedule is a schedule of reinforcement where a response is reinforced only after a specified number of responses. Essentially, the subject provides a set number of responses and then the trainer offers a reward. Variable-ratio schedule is a schedule of reinforcement where a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule creates a steady, high rate of responding. Fixed-interval schedule is a schedule of reinforcement where the first response is rewarded only after a specified amount of time has elapsed. variable-interval schedule is a schedule of reinforcement where a response is rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time has passed.

Skinners research and writing made him a figurehead of the behaviorist movement. His work advanced the development in experimental psychology. Leaning back on his writing career the article states Skinner also used fiction to present many of his theoretical ideas. In his 1948 book Walden Two, Skinner described a fictional utopian society in which people were trained to become ideal citizens through the use of operant conditioning. His writings both dealing with psychology and not are fascinating and controversial. In his later life he would continue to write about his life and theories. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 1989 and in the week before his death he was awarded the lifetime achievement award by the American Psychological Association.

One new thing i learned was how varied the operant conditioning is how many different fields it is used in. I found that this article was very informative and fascinating. Following the life of B.F. Skinner was interesting his inventions were unbelievable, seemingly odd and futuristic. The website was very informative, but I would have liked to see more focus on the psychological aspects of Skinner. Operant conditioning is mentioned in the book on page

It is pretty cut and dry about associative learning about a behavior being modified by reinforced or punishment.

Works Cited

  1. Cherry, Kendra. “B. F. Skinner: The Life of Psychology’s Radical Behaviorist.” Verywell Mind, Verywell Mind, 19 June 2019,

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Skinner’s Research On Operant Behavior And Operant Conditioning. (2022, March 17). Edubirdie. Retrieved May 30, 2023, from
“Skinner’s Research On Operant Behavior And Operant Conditioning.” Edubirdie, 17 Mar. 2022,
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