American psychologist B. F. Skinner became
one of the most famous psychologists in history for his pioneering research on operant conditioning. In fact, he coined the
term operant conditioning. Beginning in the 1930s, Skinner spent several decades studying the behavior of animals—usually
rats or pigeons—in chambers that became known as Skinner boxes. Like Thorndike’s puzzle box, the Skinner box was
a barren chamber in which an animal could earn food by making simple responses, such as pressing a lever or a circular response
key. A device attached to the box recorded the animal’s responses. The Skinner box differed from the puzzle box in three
main ways: (1) upon making the desired response, the animal received food but did not escape from the chamber; (2) the box
delivered only a small amount of food for each response, so that many reinforcers could be delivered in a single test session;
and (3) the operant response required very little effort, so an animal could make hundreds or thousands of responses per hour.
Because of these changes, Skinner could collect much more data, and he could observe how changing the pattern of food delivery
affected the speed and pattern of an animal’s behavior.
B. F. Skinner American psychologist B.
F. Skinner became famous for his pioneering research on learning and behavior. During his 60-year career, Skinner discovered
important principles of operant conditioning, a type of learning that involves reinforcement and punishment. A strict behaviorist,
Skinner believed that operant conditioning could explain even the most complex of human behaviors.Liaison Agency/William Coupon
Skinner became famous not just for his
research with animals, but also for his controversial claim that the principles of learning he discovered using the Skinner
box also applied to the behavior of people in everyday life. Skinner acknowledged that many factors influence human behavior,
including heredity, basic types of learning such as classical conditioning, and complex learned behaviors such as language.
However, he maintained that rewards and punishments control the great majority of human behaviors, and that the principles
of operant conditioning can explain these behaviors.
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