3.3 BF Skinner
Burrhus Frederic (B F) Skinner is one of the key figures in psychology, most notably within the influential behaviourist movement. In a vociferous quest to place psychology on a scientific footing, behaviourists discard introspectionist concepts such as human nature, personality development and even personality itself. They exist, of course, but psychology can only be scientific, according to the behaviourist perspective, if restricted to observable factors and visible operations performed on the organism from without. The organism might as well be empty. Behaviourists also reject the fundamental humanistic-existential concept of free will (see Section II), this similarly occurring in the irrelevant “black box” betweenstimulus and response, between input and output, between environmental conditions and observable reaction to those conditions. Similarly, and controversially, Skinner contends that even human beings cannot and do not plan for the future.
Instead of saying that a man behaves because of the consequences which are to follow his behaviour, simply say that he behaves because of the consequences which have followed similar behaviour in the past. (Skinner, 1953: 87)
All behaviour and psychological development is stated categorically to be determined by prior conditioning, especially operant conditioning. Operant conditioning focuses upon the consequences of a person’s behaviour as he proactively “operates” upon his environment. The consequences generated by his behaviour will clearly affect the subsequent frequency, intensity and duration of similar behaviour. Skinner identifies four consequence scenarios: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment and operant extinction.
Positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour by rewarding it. Skinner distinguishes between primary reinforcement, which satisfies a basic need (e.g. food, drink, shelter), and secondary reinforcement, which rewards through its learned association with a primary (e.g. money, attention, approval). Negative reinforcement, despite its label, similarly strengthens a behaviour. This occurs through the removal, reduction or prevention of an unpleasant experience. Examples are taking painkillers and obeying the law, both of which stave off negative consequences and are hence reinforced. Negative reinforcement may also account for self-protection in relationships and the perpetuation of a phobic response. In the latter case, the person’s avoidance of the phobic situation or object precludes a negative outcome – the phobic response itself – and is hence reinforced. Unfortunately, such avoidance also prevents extinction of the phobic response from occurring, through classical conditioning principles, as it would were the person to approach and remain in the phobic situation. It is not inconceivable that positive and negative reinforcement apply more widely to human development.
Skinner is not a great fan of punishment, preferring to prescribe operant extinctionto diminish undesirable behaviour. Extinction is proposed to occur because the offending behaviour is not reinforced. It may, for instance, be ignored. The classic example is not engaging with a child’s temper tantrums so that they eventually settle down (rather than give the child attention, positively reinforcement his outbursts and make them even more resistant to extinction). Another is the time out procedure where the child is removed from the environment (e.g. the classroom) in which her undesirable behaviour has occurred and placed alone in another (e.g. the corridor) where no reinforcement is available. In general, Skinner advocates the benefits of positive reinforcement to enhance desirable behaviour and operant extinction to reduce undesirable behaviour. He wrote extensively about creating an ideal society based upon such contingencies of reinforcement.
Skinner emphasises another axis of reinforcement: continuous reinforcement and partial reinforcement. Continuous reinforcement is problematical in that it risks satiation. A child might become sick of receiving a chocolate bar, for instance, every time that she makes her bed. Partial reinforcement is more realistic. We do not receive praise for every job that we do, for example, nor do we win every bet that we place. The increase in response rate and resistance to extinction evoked by partial reinforcement is reflected in the everyday statement “treat ’em mean, keep ’em keen”. Skinner identified four different schedules of partial reinforcement, after serendipitously running short of food pellets which he used to rewards rats and pigeons in his standard Skinner box apparatus.
With a fixed interval schedule, the person is rewarded after a set time period (or, more correctly, for the first target response after the time period has elapsed) – typical of, say, salaried employment. In fixed ratio, he is rewarded after completing a set number of target responses, exemplified by piecework. The fixed schedules, especially the latter, may produce a lull in responding after the reward has been administered. Such “rest periods” are avoided by variable schedules, where receiving the reinforcement becomes unpredictable. A variable intervalschedule provides the reward after an irregular interval, though a set time period on average. Hence. a so-called VI5 schedule rewards on average every five minutes, but the specific intervals might range between fifteen seconds and fifteen minutes. The recreational activity of fishing could fit into this variable interval framework. A variable ratio schedule provides the reward after an unpredictable number of target responses. Hence, a VR5 schedule rewards every five responses, but the specific number of responses required might range from, say, one to 15. Gambling and other addictions might fit into this variable ratio framework.
The main findings regarding partial reinforcement schedules which could influence human psychological development as follows.
· Behaviour is more easily acquired through continuous reinforcement, but more easily maintained by partial reinforcement.
· Behaviour subject to partial reinforcement is more resistant to extinction. The Skinnerian advice to those wishing to break an undesirable habit, therefore, is not to yield to temptation since this would put the behaviour on to a partial reinforcement schedule.
· Ratio schedules lead to higher response rates than do interval schedules since the organism can influence the provision of reinforcement.
· Variable schedules generate a more constant response rate and slower extinction than do fixed schedules as each response has a chance of being rewarded.
Other phenomena of operant conditioning include generalisation, discrimination and shaping. In generalisation, the organism learns to perform similar behaviour to that specifically reinforced and to do so in similar situations. A infant, for example, might say “Da- Da” to all men and not just to her father. Withdiscrimination, the organism learns only to respond when a discriminative stimulusis present. Thus, a pigeon in the Skinner box learns to peck a disk only when a light is present to indicate that a food pellet reward is available. It does not peck when the light is off. Similarly, a person will tend only to ask an onerous favour of his partner when she appears to be in a good mood. Shaping involves reinforcingsuccessive approximations to the desired response and extinguishing everything else. It is the basis of all animal training. In accordance with general process learning theory, however, Skinner and other behaviourists argue that the laws of learning are consistent between species and, thereby, apply to human beings too. In this respect, Skinner also noted superstitious behaviour – namely, that exhibited at the time a reward is given – itself becoming reinforced, often in a single trial.
Additional pointers for self-control advised by Skinner include:
· stimulus control (e.g. removing oneself from the situation which triggers one’s undesirable reaction)
· self-administered satiation (e.g. overdoing an unwanted behaviour to utilise, in everyday terms, principles of diminishing returns and “too much of a good thing . . .”)
· aversive stimulation (e.g. setting up potentially unpleasant consequences such as the loss of face that could result from broadcasting to friends that one is about to make a behavioural change and then failing to do so)
· self-reinforcement (e.g. rewarding oneself for desirable behaviours).
Behaviour itself is quantified and assessed by Skinner through functional analysesof its frequency, context and reinforcement using direct observation, self-reports (e.g. interviews or questionnaires) and physiological measurements (e.g. of muscular tension, heart rate or brain wave patterns). All of the principles delineated above form the basis of behaviour modification, not only a tried and tested approach to therapy but also a cogent account of some of the processes affecting human psychological development.
Skinner, B F (1938). The Behaviour of Organisms: An Experimental Analysis. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B F (1948). Walden Two. New York: MacMillan.
Skinner, B F (1953). Science and Human Behaviour. New York: MacMillan.
Skinner, B F (1957). Verbal Behaviour. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B F (1968). The Technology of Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Skinner, B F (1969). Contingencies of Reinforcement: A Theoretical Analysis. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Skinner, B F (1971). Beyond Freedom and Dignity. New York: Knopf.
Skinner, B F (1972). Cumulative Record: A Selection of Papers (3rd edition). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
Skinner, B F (1974). About Behaviourism. New York: Knopf.
Skinner, B F (1977). Particulars of my Life. New York: McGraw-Hill.
Skinner, B F (1978). Reflections on Behaviourism and Society. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Skinner, B F (1984). Intellectual Self-management in Old Age. American Psychologist, 38: 239-244.
Skinner, B F (1986). The Shame of American Education. American Psychologist, 41: 568-574.
Skinner, B F (1987). Upon Further Reflection. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
Some webpages on Skinner:
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