How to Build a Skinner Box

Skinner boxes can be simple or involve elaborate accessories.
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An early pioneer in the field of behavioral psychology, Burrhus Frederic Skinner contributed significant theories of human behavior that are still taught in college level psychology classes to date. Skinner coined the term "operant conditioning," the idea that humans make conscious connections between behaviors, rewards and punishment. This was notably proven by Skinner in his experimental lab work with animals using an apparatus he created called the Skinner box, used for teaching lab animals consequences of behavior. The box was created by Skinner in the 1930s and for its time it was an innovative experimental tool. However, in building a Skinner box today, you should employ ethical methods to maintain safety for the intended lab subject.

Draw an outline of your box on a large piece of construction paper to determine the dimensions of each side. The simplest box to make will have four sides and a bottom but the fourth side should be covered by the clear plexiglass piece. If your box is meant for a small rodent, make it big enough to allow the rodent to turn around comfortably.

Measure each side of the intended box equally and draw an outline in the wood. Cut each side of the box from the wood template. Reserve one piece of the cut wood for the lever you will make. Cut a one inch by one inch slit in this piece of wood. The slit should be big enough to stick a wooden ruler, tongue depressor or popsicle stick through but also allow a seesaw like movement.

Construct the lever. Before securing the walls of the box, construct the lever. Place the lever material through the slit of the side of the box. Glue walls on the left and right side of the lever. Construct the walls from tongue depressors and secure them with wood glue. Seal the end of the lever on the outside of the box but leave the end that will be inside the box open. Do this so that you can place food pellets on the closed side of the lever and when your lab subject successfully pushes the lever, they can obtain the reward inside the box.

Glue the walls of the box together and let the glue dry. Once the glue dries, ensure security by nailing the four points of the sides of the box together. Use small tacking nails to avoid splitting the wood. The top of the box should be open. Glue the plexiglass or plastic to the side opening of the box. The clear side allows you to observe the experiment from a distance.

Load the closed end of the lever with a food pellet. Place the lab animal in the box and slowly condition the animal to seek the lever for reward.

  • The Skinner box should not to be confused with another controversial box created by Skinner called the Baby Tender.
  • You can add more elaborate components to the box, such as lights and sounds but this requires use of electricity. Try the simple box first, using operant conditioning techniques such as exposing the animal to the pellet near the lever and then on the lever. This trains the animal to seek the lever for the reward.

Aubri John has been a contributing researcher and writer to online physical and mental health oriented journals since 2005. John publishes online health and fitness articles that coincide with her licensed clinical skills in addictions, psychology and medical care. She has a master's degree in clinical social work and a Ph.D. in health psychology.