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A Radical "Mind": B. F. Skinner and Operant Conditioning

Where Did Skinner Get His Ideas From?

Burrhus Frederick Skinner studied at Harvard where he met Fred Keller who at that time was studying behavior. Both Pavlov and Watson were influences on his career as they believed that psychology should be more experimental, empirical, and set aside psychoanalysis.


What Did He Believe in? What Did He Come Up With?

With Skinner, we can see very clearly radical behaviorism, which assumes that internal mental processes are not responsible for originating human behavior, but external and measurable factors. Psychological hypotheses should be evaluated exclusively through objective evidence. While private mental processes do not generate behavior, Skinner does not deny their existence.

Skinner comes up with operant behavior, which is the type of behavior an organism has in a natural environment when learning conduct. From this concept he developed his theory of Operant Conditioning, which says that, given the operant behavior of organisms, they encounter stimuli called reinforcing stimulus that reinforces a type of behavior.

Behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies the tendency of the organism to repeat the behavior in the future.

A behavior followed by a positive reinforcing stimulus causes an increased probability of that behavior in the future. This is called Reinforcement

If we stop giving that reinforcing stimulus, an extinction of operant conditioning is most likely to occur, a behavior that is no longer followed by a reinforcing stimulus causes a decreasing probability that that behavior will not occur again in the future.

An aversive stimulus is the opposite of a reinforcing stimulus; something noticed unpleasant or painful. A behavior followed by an aversive stimulus result in a decreasing probability of the occurrence of that behavior in the future. It is also known as punishment.

If this negative stimulus is removed before it happens, we would be doing negative reinforcement. A behavior followed by an adverse stimulus result in a decreasing probability of the occurrence of that behavior in the future.


So What Is the Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Skinner distanced himself from a different type of conditioning called Classical Conditioning, which was the theory used by his peers and precursors, while both types of conditioning modify behavior, they don't modify the same type of behavior, and they don't use the same methods to do so.

In Classical Conditioning, a neurological stimulus becomes an associated reflex. Example: The sound of the bell is associated with salivation. A simple innate behavior is what produces an inevitable response to the modification of the environmental situation.

It is a combination of stimulus-response factors. The behavior is internal and innate.

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In Operant Conditioning

Human behavior is the product of operant reinforcement. Example: The individual pulls a lever and receives food.

It is not a reflection; the subject must perform an activity to get something in return.

The behavior is external as it influences the world outside the individual. The relationship of the behavior has an effect that increases the probability that in similar conditions the same will reappear. It can be simplified as Stimulus-Response-Consequence.

We Know How, but What About How Often?

Skinner described reinforcement schedules designed to condition behavior:

  • Continuous reinforcement: Each time the desired action is completed, a reward is given to continue reinforcing this behavior. This is the quickest way to teach a behavior.
  • Partial reinforcement or intermittent reinforcement: the subject does not get reinforced every time they show the desired behavior. Schedules are classified in two categories, fixed or variable, and interval or ratio.
    • Interval means the schedule is based on time between reinforcements.
    • Ratio Means the schedule is based on the number of responses between reinforcements
    • Fixed means that the amount of time or number of responses between reinforcements is set and does not change.
    • Variable means that the amount of time or number is not set and changes.

We can mix these to get different reinforcement schedules. Such are:

  • Fixed ratio: There is a relationship between the number of times an action is performed needed for a reward to be generated.
  • Fixed interval: In a certain time, the desired action must be generated to have a reward.
  • Variable interval: Randomly changes the times you must complete an action to receive a reward.
  • Variable ratio: Reinforcement is delivered after an unpredictable number of responses.

What Can We Do With Operant Conditioning?

Research papers on the principles of learning are the frame of reference on which multiple behavioral engineering technologies have been developed, thanks to them, it is possible to treat an immense variety of problems in the clinical, educational, community and organizational fields, health, sports, emergencies, gerontology, and psychopathology, among others, with high efficacy rates. It should be noted that the subjects of intervention can be both individuals and couples, as well as social and family groups.

Among the numerous techniques available are those of contingency management and live exposure (e.g. positive reinforcement, molding, extinction, positive and negative punishment, overflow, token economy, etc.), those of fantasy exposure (covert reinforcement, stress inoculation, systematic desensitization and others), those of training in self-regulation of competences (self-control, anxiety management, social skills, etc.), and rational restructuring (e.g. conflict resolution, acceptance and commitment, self-instructional training, etc.).

The Division of Clinical Psychology of the APA (American Psychiatric Association) has long evaluated the efficacy of psychological treatments. These studies show a large predominance of behavioral techniques in empirically validated treatment guidelines.


Hergenhahn, B. R., Henley, T. B. (2013). An Introduction to the History of Psychology. Belmont, Wadstworth.

© 2022 Hiromi Kurihara

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