Skinner: Behavioral Analysis

  1. Overview of Skinner’s Behavioral Analysis

During the 1920s and 1930s, while Freud, Adler, and Jung were relying on clinical practice and before Eysenck and McCrae and Costa were using psychometric procedures to build personality theories, a number of behaviorists were constructing models based on laboratory studies of human and nonhuman animals.  Early behaviorists included E. L. Thorndike and J. B. Watson, but the most influential of the later theorists was B. F. Skinner.  Behavioral models of personality avoided speculations about hypothetical constructs and concentrated almost exclusively on observable behavior. Skinner rejected the notion of free will and emphasized the primacy of environmental influences on behavior.

  1. Biography of B. F. Skinner
  2. F. Skinner was born in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania in 1904, the older of two brothers. While in college, Skinner wanted to be a writer, but after having little success in this endeavor, he turned to psychology.  After earning a PhD from Harvard, he taught at the Universities of Minnesota and Indiana before returning to Harvard, where he remained until his death in 1990.

III.    Precursors to Skinner’s Scientific Behaviorism

Modern learning theory has roots in the work of Edward L. Thorndike and his experiments with animals during the last part of the 19th century.  Thorndike’s law of effect stated that responses followed by a satisfier tend to be learned, a concept that anticipated Skinner’s use of positive reinforcement to shape behavior.  Skinner was even more influenced by John Watson who argued that psychology must deal with the control and prediction of behavior and that behavior—not introspection, consciousness, or the mind—is the basic data of scientific psychology.

  1. Scientific Behaviorism

Skinner believed that human behavior, like any other natural phenomena, is subject to the laws of science, and that psychologists should not attribute inner motivations to it.  Although he rejected internal states (thoughts, emotions, desires, etc.) as being outside the realm of science, Skinner did not deny their existence.  He simply insisted that they should not be used to explain behavior.

  1. Philosophy of Science

Because the purpose of science is to predict and control, Skinner argued that psychologists should be concerned with determining the conditions under which human behavior occurs.  By discovering these conditions, psychologists can predict and control human behavior.

  1. Characteristics of Science

Skinner held that science has three principal characteristics: (1) its findings are cumulative, (2) it rests on an attitude that values empirical observation, and (3) it searches for order and reliable relationships.

  1. Conditioning

Skinner recognized two kinds of conditioning:  classical and operant.

  1. Classical Conditioning

In classical conditioning, a conditioned stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus until it is capable of bringing about a previously unconditioned response.  For example, Watson and Rainier conditioned a young boy to fear a white rat (the conditioned stimulus) by associating it to a loud sudden noise (an unconditioned stimulus).  Eventually, through the process of generalization, the boy learned to fear stimuli that resembled the white rat.

  1. Operant Conditioning

With operant conditioning, reinforcement is used to increase the probability that a given behavior will recur. Three factors are essential in operant conditioning: (1) the antecedent, or environment in which behavior takes place; (2) the behavior, or response; and (3) the consequence that follows the behavior.  Psychologists and others use shaping to mold complex human behavior.  Different histories of reinforcement result in operant discrimination, meaning that different organisms will respond differently to the same environmental contingencies.  People may also respond similarly to different environmental stimuli, a process Skinner called stimulus generalization.  Anything within the environment that strengthens a behavior is a reinforcer.  Positive reinforcement is any stimulus that when added to a situation increases the probability that a given behavior will occur.  Negative reinforcement is the strengthening of behavior through the removal of an aversive stimulus.  Both positive and negative reinforcement strengthen behavior.  Any event that decreases a behavior either by presenting an aversive stimulus or by removing a positive one is called punishment.  The effects of punishment are much less predictable than those of reward.  Both punishment and reinforcement can result from either natural consequences or from human imposition.  Conditioned reinforcers are those stimuli that are not by nature satisfying (e.g., money), but that can become so when they are associated with a primary reinforcers, such as food.  Generalized reinforcers are conditioned reinforcers that have become associated with several primary reinforcers.  Reinforcement can follow behavior on either a continuous schedule or on an intermittent schedule.  There are four basic intermittent schedules: (1) fixed-ratio, on which the organism is reinforced intermittently according to the number of responses it makes; (2) variable-ratio, on which the organism is reinforced after an average  of a predetermined number of responses; (3) fixed-interval, on which the organism is reinforced for the first response following a designated period of time; and (4) variable interval, on which the organism is reinforced after the lapse of various periods of time. The tendency of a previously acquired response to become progressively weakened upon nonreinforcement is called extinction.  Such elimination or weakening of a response is called classical extinction in a classical conditioning model and operant extinction when the response is acquired through operant conditioning.

  1. The Human Organism

Skinner believed that human behavior is shaped by three forces: (1) natural selection, (2) the evolution of cultures, and (3) the individual’s personal history of reinforcement, which we discussed above.

  1. Natural Selection

As a species, our behavior is shaped by the contingencies of survival; that is, those behaviors (e.g., sex and aggression) that were beneficial to the human species tended to survive, whereas those that did not tended to drop out.

  1. Cultural Evolution

Those societies that evolved certain cultural practices (e.g. tool making and language) tended to survive.  Currently, the lives of nearly all people are shaped, in part, by modern tools (computers, media, various modes of transportation, etc.) and by their use of language.  However, humans do not make cooperative decisions to do what is best for their society, but those societies whose members behave in a cooperative manner tended to survive.

  1. Inner States

Skinner recognized the existence of such inner states as drives and self-awareness, but he rejected the notion that they can explain behavior.  To Skinner, drives refer to the effects of deprivation and satiation and thus are related to the probability of certain behaviors, but they are not the causes of behavior.  Skinner believed that emotions can be accounted for by the contingencies of survival and the contingencies of reinforcement; but like drives, they do not cause behavior.  Similarly, purpose and intention are not causes of behavior, although they are felt sensations and exist within the skin.

  1. Complex Behavior

Human behavior is subject to the same principles of operant conditioning as simple animal behavior, but it is much more complex and difficult to predict or control.  Skinner explained creativity as the result of random or accidental behaviors that happen to be rewarded.  Skinner believed that most of our behavior is unconscious or automatic and that not thinking about certain experiences is reinforcing.  Skinner viewed dreams as covert and symbolic forms of behavior that are subject to the same contingencies of reinforcement as any other behavior.

  1. Control of Human Behavior

Ultimately, all of a person’s behavior is controlled by the environment.  Societies exercise control over their members through laws, rules, and customs that transcend any one person’s means of countercontrol.  There are four basic methods of social control: (1) operant conditioning, including positive and negative reinforcement and punishment; (2) describing contingencies, or using language to inform people of the consequence of their behaviors; (3) deprivation and satiation, techniques that increase the likelihood that people will behave in a certain way; and (4) physical restraint, including the jailing of criminals.  Although Skinner denied the existence of free will, he did recognize that people manipulate variables within their own environment and thus exercise some measure of self-control, which has several techniques: (1) physical restraint, (2) physical aids, such as tools; (3) changing environmental stimuli; (4) arranging the environment to allow escape from aversive stimuli; (5) drugs; and (6) doing something else.

VII.   The Unhealthy Personality

Social control and self-control sometimes produce counteracting strategies and inappropriate behaviors.

  1. Counteracting Strategies

People can counteract excessive social control by (1) escaping from it, (2) revolting against it, or (3) passively resisting it.

  1. Inappropriate Behaviors

Inappropriate behaviors follow from self-defeating techniques of counteracting social control or from unsuccessful attempts at self-control.

VIII. Psychotherapy

Skinner was not a psychotherapist, and he even criticized psychotherapy as being one of the major obstacles to a scientific study of human behavior.  Nevertheless, others have used operant conditioning principles to shape behavior in a therapeutic setting.  Behavior therapists play an active role in the treatment process, using behavior modification techniques and pointing out the positive consequences of some behaviors and the aversive effects of others.

  1. Related Research

Skinner’s theory has generated more research than any other personality theory.  Much of this research can be divided into two questions: (1) How does operant conditioning affect personality? and (2) How does personality affect conditioning?  In addition to these two questions, a recent development in research, due to technological advances, has been the study of reinforcement as related to brain activation.

  1. How Conditioning Affects Personality

A plethora of studies have demonstrated that operant conditioning can change personality, that is, behavior.  For example, a study by  Tidey et al. found that, when given a choice, smokers would choose a cigarette rather than money.

  1. How Personality Affects Conditioning

Research has also found that different personalities may react differently to the same environmental stimuli.  This means that the same reinforcement strategies will not have the same effect on all people.  For example, Alan Pickering and Jeffrey Gray have developed and tested reinforcement sensitivity theory, which suggests that impulsivity, anxiety, and introversion/extraversion relate to ways people respond to environmental reinforcers.  More recently, researchers have begun to explore the association between reinforcement sensitivities and other personality dimensions.  Philip Corr (2002) conducted one of the first studies to examine differences in anxiety and impulsivity and their association to response sensitivities.  Corr also reformulated the reinforcement sensitivity theory (RST) of Pickering and Gray:  originally the personality dimensions should operate independently, while in Corr’s reformulation they can operate somewhat jointly and interdependently.  His results supported his joint subsystem hypothesis and contradicted the separable subsystem hypothesis.  For highly anxious people, impulsivity acts as a buffer to responsiveness to negative stimuli.  Again, the main point was also reinforced by this study:  People vary in their responses to reinforcers depending on their personalities.

  1. Reinforcement and the Brain

Recent advances in imaging have allowed researchers to analyze individual differences in brain activation as responses to stimuli such as food (Beaver et al, 2006).  Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, John Beaver and his colleagues gave the behavioral activation scale (BAS) self-report to participants to measure how actively they tend to pursue rewards.  They then measured the subjects’ brain activation upon exposure to pictures of rewarding foods versus bland foods.  They found that people who scored higher on the personality variable of behavioral activation also had greater activation to pictures of rewarding foods in five specific areas of the brain.  These results supported the general conclusion that personality is related to differences in how we biologically respond to rewards.  This research holds future promise, for possibly helping to alter health outcomes such as obesity, and for understanding what people find rewarding and why.

  1. Critique of Skinner

On the six criteria of a useful theory, Skinner’s approach rates very high on its ability to generate research and to guide action, high on its ability to be falsified, and about average on its ability to organize knowledge.  In addition, it rates very high on internal consistency and high on simplicity.

  1. Concept of Humanity

Skinner’s concept of humanity was a completely deterministic and causal one that emphasized unconscious behavior and the uniqueness of each person’s history of reinforcement within a mostly social environment.  Unlike many determinists, Skinner is quite optimistic in his view of humanity.


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