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The reinforcement theory of B. F. Skinner

The reinforcement theory of B. F. Skinner

June 12, 2024

It seems obvious to think that if after performing a certain behavior we receive a reward or reward, it is much more likely that we repeat it again. After this principle, which may seem so obvious, are a whole series of hypotheses and theories studied and debated throughout the history of psychology.

One of the main proponents of this approach was Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who through his Reinforcement Theory tried to give an explanation to the functioning of human behavior in response to certain stimuli.

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Who was B. F. Skinner?

Psychologist, philosopher, inventor and author. These are just some of the occupations attributed to the well-known psychologist, of American origin, Burrhus Frederic Skinner. He is considered one of the main authors and researchers within the behavioral current of North America .


One of its main objects of study was human behavior. Specifically, I wanted to explain how it worked as a response to different stimuli that can influence it.

Through experimental manipulation and observation of animal behavior , Skinner sketched his first theories about the role that reinforcement has in behavior, creating from these the principles of the theory of operant conditioning.

For Skinner the use of so-called positive and negative reinforcements it was vital to modify both human and animal behavior; well to increase or enhance certain behaviors or to inhibit or eliminate them.


Likewise, Skinner was interested in the practical applications of his theories; creating "programmed education" In this type of educational process, students are explained a series of small information centers that they must learn consecutively to be able to pass to the next information center.

Finally, Skinner also gave rise to a series of essays surrounded by a certain controversy in which he proposed the use of psychological techniques of behavior modification with the aim of increase the quality of society and thus reinforce the happiness of the people , as a kind of social engineering for the happiness and well-being of men and women.

What is the reinforcement theory?

The reinforcement theory elaborated by Skinner, also known as operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning, attempts to explain human behavior in correspondence with the environment or the stimuli that surround it.


Through the experimental method, Skinner reaches the conclusion that the appearance of a stimulus triggers a response in the person. If this response is conditioned using positive or negative reinforcers, an influence can be exerted on that reaction or operant behavior, which can be enhanced or inhibited.

Skinner established that the behavior is maintained from one context or situation to another provided that the consequences, ie the reinforcers do not change or do so following certain logics, "rules" that must be discovered. Due, Both human and animal behavior can be conditioned or modified using a series of stimuli that the subject can consider satisfactory or not.

Explained more simply, Reinforcement Theory emphasizes that a person is more likely to repeat a behavior that is positively reinforced, and will be more likely to repeat those that are associated with negative stimuli or reinforcements.

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What types of reinforcement are there?

Conditional or reinforcing stimuli, both positive and negative, can be used for the purpose of rectifying or changing the person's behavior. These They are very useful both in psychological therapy, as in the school setting , family or even work.

Skinner differentiated between two types of reinforcers: positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers.

1. Positive reinforcers

Positive reinforcers are all those consequences that appear after a behavior and that the person considers satisfactory or beneficial. Through these positive or satisfactory reinforcers, we seek to increase the response rate of a person, that is, increase the probability of performing or repeating an action.

This means that acts that are positively reinforced will be more likely to be repeated since gratifications, awards or rewards perceived as positive are followed by the person who performs the action.

It is very important to emphasize that for this association to be effective it is necessary to make sure that the person considers the positive reinforcement as such. That is, to find it really attractive.

What a person can consider as a prize does not have to be for another. For example, a child who is hardly given candy can perceive them as a prize more important than another who is accustomed to them. Thus, It will be necessary to know the particularities and differences of the person so, to be able to specify what will be the ideal stimulus that serves as a positive reinforcement.

In turn, these positive reinforcers can be classified into the following categories:

  • Primary or intrinsic reinforcers : they are behaviors that by themselves generate satisfaction. For example, eating if you are hungry.
  • Secondary reinforcers : they are given through learning and are external to the person. They can be material, like money or social, like recognition.

3. Negative reinforcers

Contrary to what is popularly believed, negative reinforcers do not consist in administering punishments or aversive stimuli to the person; If not the opposite. The use of negative reinforcers seeks to increase the response rate of this the elimination of those consequences that it considers negative .

For example, a child who studies for a certain test and gets a good grade. In this case the parents exempt him from doing some domestic chore or any activity that is unpleasant.

As we can see, unlike positive reinforcement, in this case the appearance of a negative or aversive stimulus is eliminated so that a certain behavior increases. However, that they do have in common is the stimuli will also have to be adapted to the tastes of the person.

  • Related article: "What is positive or negative reinforcement in Psychology?"

Skinner's reinforcement programs

As discussed at the beginning of the article, in addition to theorizing about human behavior, Skinner sought to bring these theories to real practice . To do this, it developed a series of concrete reinforcement programs, the most outstanding being the programs of continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement (interval reinforcement and reason reinforcement).

1. Continuous reinforcement

In continuous reinforcement the person is constantly rewarded for an action or behavior . The main advantage is that the partnership shape quickly and effectively; however, once the reinforcement is eliminated, the behavior also quickly disappears.

2. Intermittent reinforcement

In these cases only the behavior of the person is reinforced in certain occasions . This program in turn is subdivided into two categories: interval reinforcement (fixed or variable) or ratio reinforcement (fixed or variable)

In interval reinforcement, the behavior is reinforced after a previously established period of time (fixed) or a random period of time (variable). While in the reinforcement of reason the person has to carry out a certain number of behaviors before it is reinforced. As in interval reinforcement, this number of responses can be previously agreed (fixed) or not (random).

Criticisms of Skinner's theory

Like all areas of study and research, Skinner's theory is not exempt from criticism. The main detractors of these hypotheses accuse Skinner of not taking into account the circumstances around which the behavior occurs, thus creating a theory too reductionist to be based on the experimental method . However, this criticism is replicated by calling attention to the fact that in the experimental method it is about putting the focus of attention not just on the individual, but in the context, what happens in the environment.


Reinforcement Theory (June 2024).


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