Skinner's Behavioral Theories

Skinner studied operant conditioning extensively in those ubiquitous, furry lab assistants -- rats.
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In the late 1930s, the psychologist B. F. Skinner formulated his theory of operant conditioning, which is predicated on three types of responses people exhibit to external stimuli. These include neutral operants, reinforcers and punishers. Skinner derived this theory from Thorndike's law of effect, and his work gave rise to his own theory of behavior modification.

1 Overview of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning refers to the modification of an organism's behavior by modifying the consequences of that behavior. To use Skinner's clinical terminology, this is done through reinforcement -- which can be either positive or negative -- and punishment. The most effective operant conditioning occurs when the reinforcement or punishment is provided as soon as possible after the manifestation of a given behavior.

2 Positive Reinforcement

Consider a behavior you'd like to see more from a family member, friend, co-worker or anyone else with whom you're in close contact. Examples might include your child picking up his toys, your workout partner meeting you for your 6 a.m. weekday run or your husband taking out the trash without being asked. In each case, you could reward the behavior; you might give your child a fruit snack, buy your running partner a latte or give your spouse an unusually glowing review. Each of these is an example of positive reinforcement -- a favorable outcome following a desirable behavior.

3 Negative Reinforcement

Often confused with punishment, negative reinforcement -- like positive reinforcement -- involves trying to strengthen a desirable behavior. Rather than rewarding the behavior by adding something positive in the aftermath, however, reinforcement in this case entails removing something negative. For example, if you're on a sports team and given a practice assignment to complete every day, and have to report the results to your coach, your coach may scold you on days you choose to sleep in rather than do your workout. By doing the workout, you avoid the scolding, so even if your coach isn't given to praise, you're more likely to get up and work out the next day.

4 Punishment and Behavior

In contrast to reinforcement, punishment deals with negative behaviors and how to eliminate or extinguish them. As with reinforcement, there are both positive and negative types of punishment. In positive punishment -- perhaps the more well-recognized type -- a negative outcome follows an unwanted behavior, as when you ground your teenager for breaking her curfew. In negative punishment, or "extinction," the removal of a positive outcome follows the negative behavior, as in the example of taking away your teenager's car-use privilege when she gets a speeding ticket. The line between positive punishment and negative punishment may sometimes be blurry.

Michael Crystal earned a Bachelor of Science in biology at Case Western Reserve University, where he was a varsity distance runner, and is a USA Track and Field-certified coach. Formerly the editor of his running club's newsletter, he has been published in "Trail Runner Magazine" and "Men's Health." He is pursuing a medical degree.