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The theory of B. F. Skinner and behaviorism

The theory of B. F. Skinner and behaviorism

November 27, 2021

Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not only one of the most important historical figures in psychology ; it is, in many aspects, responsible for its assertion as a science.

His contributions to this field are not only methodological, but also philosophical, and his radical behaviorism, despite not being much less hegemonic at present, allowed, among other things, that in the second half of the 20th century a tool as useful as Behavioral Cognitive Therapy, very inspired by this researcher. Let's see what were the main keys of the theory of B. F. Skinner.

A turn towards operant conditioning

When B. F. Skinner began his studies, behaviorism was based basically on the simple conditioning inherited from the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and popularized by John B. Watson.


Explained very much above, this first approach of behavioral psychology proposed to modify the behavior by making pleasant or unpleasant stimuli that were presented at the same time as other stimuli to which the individual was wanted to develop aversion or pleasure. I say "individuals" and not "people" because simple conditioning was so rudimentary that it worked even with life forms with a nervous system as simple as that of reptiles or molluscs.

For example, In the famous experiments of Pavlov's dogs, this physiologist made the animals begin to salivate when hearing a certain sound , since this had been associated with food in previous trials. The key to simple conditioning was to associate stimuli with each other.


Skinner admitted that simple conditioning might be useful in certain cases, but ruled out the possibility that behavior could be explained only through this mechanism, among other things because conditions for it to occur are rarely given outside a laboratory. However, yes believed that our behavior (and that of many other life forms) can be understood as a process of adaptation to pleasant and unpleasant experiences , useful and not useful.

The change implied by BF Skinner's theory was in another sense: instead of focusing on the way in which the stimuli are associated with each other, it was fixed in the way in which the actions that are carried out and those associated with them are associated. consequences of these actions. What happens to us because of something we have done is, in itself, a stimulus of which we take note. Thus, Skinner takes into account the perception-action-perception loop.


Operant conditioning

For Skinner, learning from the consequences of the way in which he interacts with the world was the main mechanism for modifying behavior. Both humans and animals are always doing all kinds of actions, however insignificant, and these always have a consequence for us, which we receive in the form of stimuli. This association between what we do and what we notice are the consequences of our actions are the foundation of operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, that according to Skinner it was the basic form of learning in a good part of the life forms .

But that the mechanisms of operant conditioning were basically the same in many types of organisms does not mean that the contents over which they are produced were to be the same regardless of whether we are a mouse or a human being. The members of our species have the ability to create abstract concepts and generate autobiographical memory, but for Skinner the appearance of these refined forms of thought was the tip of the pyramid of a process that began learning from our successes and our mistakes in real time .

In addition, the methodology used by behavioral psychologists was based on animal models (experimentation with rats, pigeons, etc.), which in a way is a limitation.

The black box and Skinner

Behaviorists have always been well known for their conceptualization of mental processes as phenomena that occur within a "black box," a metaphor used to indicate the impossibility of observing from the outside what happens in the minds of people. But nevertheless, the black box of Skinner's theory was not the same as that of the first behaviorists . While psychologists such as John B. Watson denied the existence of a mental world, Skinner did believe that the study of mental processes could be useful in psychology.

Of course, for B. F. Skinner, the practice did not need to be done, and it was enough to start from the analysis of the relationships between measurable and directly observable actions and the consequences of these actions.The reason for his position on this issue was that he did not consider our mind to be anything more than a part of the journey from the performance of the action to the recording of the stimuli that are (or seem to be) a consequence of these actions, although with the added difficulty that it is practically impossible to study objectively.

In fact, the very concept of "the mind" was deceptive to Skinner: it leads us to think that there is something within us that makes thoughts and action plans appear out of nowhere, as if our psychic life was disconnected from our environment. That is why in B. F. Skinner's theory the object of study of psychology is behavior, and not mind or mind and behavior at the same time .

According to this behaviourist, everything that is usually called "mental process" was actually another form of behavior, something that is set in motion to make the adjustment between our actions and the expected consequences optimal.

The legacy of B. F. Skinner's theory

The theoretical legacy of the father of radical behaviorism It was a total rejection of the speculative research methods of psychoanalysis and a research proposal outside of introspection and focused only on objective variables that are easy to measure.

In addition, he indicated the risk of transforming very abstract theoretical constructs (such as "mind" or "demotivation") into causal elements that explain our behaviors. To put it in some way, for Skinner to say that someone has committed a crime because of his feeling of loneliness is like saying that a locomotive advances because of the movement.

Being so supported by operant conditioning, Skinner's work claimed the experimentation with animals as a useful source of knowledge, something that has been much criticized by both psychologists of the cognitivist stream and by various philosophers, according to which there is a qualitative leap between the mental life of non-human animals and the members of our species. However, animal models are still widely used in psychology to perform approximations to types of behaviors present in our species.


Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner (November 2021).


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