Background on Skinner

B.F. Skinner is considered to be one of the most prominent American psychologists in the twentieth century, particularly in the field of behavioral psychology. Skinner was born in 1904, and received his Ph.D. in 1931 at Harvard University. He had various major works both in behavioral psychology and in applications of psychology in education, all which focused on the impact of external stimuli on the behavior of the individual. Some of his most important works include Behavior of Organisms (1938), The Technology of Teaching (1968) and Reflections on Behaviorism and Society (1978). Skinner died in 1990, leaving behind him a brilliant legacy and a huge heritage which is still considered to among the most important works of the century.


Skinner concentrated in his work on what he called operant behavior, that is, the behavior that is made by the organism without an external stimulus. For example, if a rat in a cage turns around itself for no reason, this is an operant behavior, which is totally different from a situation when the rate turns round as a result of a painful strike, which in this case is known as respondent behavior.

Thus, according to Skinner, operant behavior appears in the organism by some unknown stimulant. Skinner did not concentrate on the causes of this behavior, but rather, on the ways in which this behavior is influenced by external stimuli. The central focus of his work was set on operant conditioning which stands for the manner in which and the rate at which the response of the organism occurs in the absence of a known external stimulus. In other words, he dealt with situations where questions like this were raised: The organism behaved in this way; how can I make him behave in this same way again whenever I want? How can I make him modify his behavior the way I want? How can I control this behavior?

With respect to these questions, Skinner dealt with two important facts related to operant conditioning. The first fact states that “any response that is followed by a reinforcing stimulus tends to be repeated” and secondly, “a reinforcing stimulus is anything that increases the rate with which an operant response occurs.


What do these principles of operant conditioning imply as Skinner saw them?

Skinner did not concentrate on what cause the behavior. He concentrated on why the behavior was repeated. Obviously, he believed, this was due to the fact that the environment around the organism was reinforcing this behavior. Hence, for example, when a child makes a funny movement by mistake, and the parents laugh, this behavior is reinforced, and it will continue to be repeated as long as there is a reinforcement. If the behavior is not reinforced, it is not likely that it will be repeated.

Similarly, when teaching a child how to pronounce words, the child makes many mistakes and many correct attempts as he tries. However, as the parent reinforces the correct attempts, these are more likely to be made. This is how Skinner believed in the differences in development among children. An American child who is raised in a Japanese family will speak Japanese and might even find it difficult to speak American later on because his way of pronouncing Japanese words has been reinforced, whereas the American way has not.

By applying these rules to child rearing, Skinner believed that it is possible to make the child grow up the way the parent wants if the correct reinforcement is used. According to Skinner, the parent has to identify the goals that he or she wants the child to achieve in life. The next step is to modify the environment, such that every time the child gets closer to the goals, the behavior made is reinforced.

This is known as the shaping process, because the parents shape the behavior of their child the way that they see most favorable. There are two main factors. The first factor is known as the differential reinforcement where the parent will only reinforce those behaviors and responses that are seen as positive whereas those which are not, are simply ignored. For example, when the child sits on his own and starts doing his homework independently, the parent immediately reinforces this behavior positively. The other component is known as the successive approximation where the responses and behaviors that are similar to the goal are also reinforced until the goal is achieved. Thus, if the parent wants the child to be independent and reliable in doing his homework, she will first reinforce behaviors such as the child’s usage of a dictionary on his own, or the usage of mental ability rather than a calculator and so on, until eventually, the child’s full independence in doing homework is achieved and then reinforced.

It is important to regard that Skinner also acknowledged the opposite of reinforcement which is extinction. He believed that by ignoring the negative behavior, that is, by not reinforcing it, this behavior will be ignored. This has a major implication on the way parents raise their children. Skinner believed that when parents make a big fuss about a mistake the child has made, there will be negative influence rather than positive influence on the goal of the parent. The behavior will be held in mind rather than being forgotten and then ignored totally. Besides, Skinner believed that punishment does not reduce the possibility that the negative behavior will appear. It might only be stopped in front of the parent, but not in appearance when the child is perhaps alone. Furthermore, Skinner attacked the use of punishment. He considered it to be ineffective because it only works on the short term. If the child is beaten, for example, for involving in sex play, he or she will stop, perhaps for a while or only in front of the parent, but on the long run, the behavior persists.


Skinner attacked the use of punishment by parents or authority in general due to a number of major reasons. First of all, punishment causes negative emotional problems mainly due to fear, which means that once fear is not there any more, the child will return to the negative behavior. Secondly, punishment does not lead to the opposite of reinforcement because reinforcement tells the child what to do, whereas punishment only tells him what not to do. Therefore, if the child is caught in sex play, punishment will teach him not to involve in sex play, but it leaves him confused and not knowing what to do instead.  Skinner also warned that the child’s fears that initiate due to fear from punishment are not reliable as agents of extinction. Once the child is sure that there is no punishing agent around, he will involve in the negative behaviors, perhaps more frequently to make up for the suppression he when avoiding the behavior. In addition to this, punishment is by its nature an aggressive act because of suppression, and even if it does not involve violence. As a result, the child or the individual will feel aggression towards the authority which punishes him, and will even be inclined to act and behave aggressively towards others. Yet, the worst of all consequences of punishment is that it only suppresses one negative behavior to allow another to come out. For example, a child who is punished because he broke his sister’s pencil will stop breaking her pencils but might push her or might kick her bag.

Instead of punishment, Skinner argued, other more constructive methods can be used. His proposed solution is to change the circumstances that cause the negative or unwanted behavior or response. Thus, when a negative behavior appears, Skinner thought, the parent should ask, why did this behavior appear?

If the behavior is due to an environmental factor, then the environmental factor can be changed to make the possibilities of the negative behavior less. For example, to avoid the child dropping the bottle of ink on the carpet, ink bottles should not be left in a handy place. Similarly, if a child sticks to a certain behavior for no reason, except perhaps that he likes it, it is better for the parent to let the child go on doing the behavior until the child in the end stops doing it. Furthermore, if the child’s negative behavior is due to developmental stage, then the parent’s best solution is to ignore the behavior until the child grows up. For example, in the second and third years of age, the child becomes very annoying and likes to impose himself. Instead of fighting with the child and punishing him, the parent can simply avoid the annoyance until it eventually stops. For example, if the child tries to blackmail the parent by breaking out into embarrassing crying traumas in the supermarket, the parent can simply carry the child out to the park and ask him to shout as he likes, but it is important that the parent ignores these cries and shouts until the child finally gives in.



Skinner’s theories and views did not go unchallenged, especially by the conservatives who believed that his methods were very liberal and unconventional. They mainly accused his methods of being very easy going, which resulted in the end in creating a very spoiled and irresponsible generation. As a matter of fact, Skinner was one of the most influential psychologists in the US, and his methods were indeed endorsed for several generations. However, his opponents also accused his methods and views of being responsible for the high rates of crime and violence in the American society. Whatever accusations there may against Skinner, no one can deny the fact that he had major influence and implications on modern psychology, especially on the behavioral school.


B.R. Hergenhahn & Mathew H. Olson. An Introduction to Theories of Learning.

New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1997.

Albert Ruskin. Psychological Development. New York: McGraw

Hill Inc., 1990.

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