Chapter 11: Skinner – Behavioral Analysis

Part 2: Scientific Analysis of Behavior and Personality

Skinner emphasized, above all else, approaching human behavior scientifically.  However, he acknowledged that human behavior is complex, and that our familiarity with it makes it difficult for us to be truly objective.  In addition, he recognized that many people find it offensive to suggest that human behavior can be understood and predicted in terms of environmental stimuli and their consequences.  Still, Skinner took the scientific approach very seriously, and he knew that science is about more than just determining a set of facts or principles. In Science and Human Behavior (Skinner, 1953), Skinner wrote that:

Science is concerned with the general, but the behavior of the individual is necessarily unique.  The “case history” has a richness and flavor which are in decided contrast with general principles…A prediction of what the average individual will do is often of little or no value in dealing with a particular individual…The extraordinary complexity of behavior is sometimes held to be an added source of difficulty.  Even though behavior may be lawful, it may be too complex to be dealt with in terms of law. (pp. 20-21; Skinner, 1953)

Given this complexity, Skinner focused on “cause” and “effect” relationships in behavior.  In common use, these terms have come to carry a meaning far beyond the original intention.  For Skinner, a cause is a change in an independent variable, whereas an effect is a change in a dependent variable.  Skinner argued that the terms cause and effect say nothing about how a cause leads to an effect, but rather, only that there is a specific relationship in specific order.  If we can discover and analyze the causes, we can predict behavior; if we can manipulate the causes, then we can control behavior (Skinner, 1953). By focusing entirely on observable behavior, Skinner felt that psychologists have an advantage, in that they will not waste time and effort pursuing either inner psychic forces or external social forces that may not even exist.  Focusing on actual behavior is simply more direct and practical. Before examining some of the larger implications of this approach, however, let’s review the basic principles of operant conditioning as defined by Skinner.

Skinner emphasized a scientific approach to the study of behavior, in part, because individual behavior is so unique.  Understanding what the average person might do may tell us nothing about a certain individual. However, a science of personality that treats everyone as unique seems to become hopelessly complex, because we must study everyone individually.  Does this really seem like a scientific approach, and whether it is or not, can it really help us to understand other people?

Principles of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning begins with a response, known as an operant, which has some effect in the organism’s environment.  These responses have consequences that determine whether or not the probability of the response will increase or decrease in the future.  Reinforcers increase the probability of a given response that precedes them, whereas punishers decrease the probability of a response that precedes them.  In common terms we might say that good consequences increase behaviors, or that the behavior is rewarded.  However, Skinner avoids words like reward due to their psychological implications, preferring instead to use the technical term reinforcer (Holland & Skinner, 1961; Skinner, 1953).

Both reinforcement and punishment come in two forms: positive and negative.  Positive reinforcement involves the application, or administration, of a favorable consequence to a response.  For example, when a child cleans their room, they receive some money as an allowance. The response of cleaning the room results in the application of a tangible reinforcer: money.  Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an aversive or noxious stimulus.  We are commonly told not to scratch itchy bug bites because we might get them infected.  However, an itch is a very noxious stimulus, and it is not easy to ignore them. When we finally give in and scratch the bite, the itching goes away (at least for a while).  The response of scratching is negatively reinforced by the removal of the noxious stimulus (no more itching). In both of these examples, the response (the operant of room cleaning or scratching) is followed by a consequence (reinforcement) that increases the likelihood that we will clean our room or scratch our itchy bug bite.

This is a color image of a woman scratching her left forearm with her right hand. She is wearing a gray t-shirt and jeans, and she is looking down at the arm she is scratching.
Image Source: nastya_gepp. Retrieved from Pixabay at Licensed under CCO.

Punishment can also be positive or negative.  If a child misbehaves and is spanked, that is a positive punishment.  In other words, an aversive consequence is applied (the spanking) as a result of the misbehavior.  With negative punishment, favorable stimuli are withdrawn.  For example, a child who misbehaves receives a time-out, thus removing them from toys, playmates, snacks, etc.  Other common examples of a negative punishment are being grounded or losing privileges (such as television or video games).  Once again, in positive punishment the response (misbehavior) results in the application of an aversive stimulus (a spanking), whereas in negative punishment the response (misbehaving) results in the removal of favorable consequences (loss of privileges).  One of the most common mistakes that psychology students make is to confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. This is understandable because of the use of the word “negative.” So it is essential to determine first whether a consequence is a reinforcer or a punisher.  Then determine whether the reinforcer is positive or negative, or whether the punisher is positive or negative. It is also generally accepted that punishment is not as effective as reinforcement, and it is more difficult to precisely control the cause-effect relationship (Skinner, 1953, 1974, 1987).  This is partly due to discriminative stimuli, which signal the contingencies that may be in effect at a given time.  In other words, the presence or absence of a parent (a discriminative stimulus) may determine whether one will be punished for a given response (if the cat’s away, the mice will play).  In addition, the possibility always exists that punishment can cross the line into abuse (physical and/or emotional). As Skinner noted, science is not just about the facts, there is always something more.  In theory, punishment may seem equivalent to reinforcement, but in practical matters, such as raising children, every situation may require a more detailed analysis.

In order to reliably measure the behavior of animals (typically rats or pigeons) in his laboratory, Skinner built a special piece of equipment commonly known as a Skinner box (though its technical name is an operant conditioning chamber).  This apparatus allowed for the precise measurement of how subjects responded over time under varying conditions, and produced a special measure of behavior known as a cumulative record.  Although continuous reinforcement is certainly effective for increasing behavior, in most situations we are not reinforced every time we engage in a certain behavior.  Skinner identified four basic schedules of reinforcement, based on variations in the number of responses necessary for reinforcement, so-called ratio schedules, or the time intervals between making reinforcers available, so-called interval schedules.  Both ratio and interval schedules can be either fixed or variable.

Although the principles of reinforcement may seem relatively straightforward, they can lead to either complex or odd behavior.  Complex behavior can be developed with operant conditioning through the process of shaping.  Shaping involves reinforcing chains of behavior in a specific sequence, with each change being relatively small and, therefore, relatively simple.  As a result, complex behavior can be explained in terms of shaping a series of simple changes in behavior. As Skinner describes it:

Operant conditioning shapes behavior as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay.  Although at some point the sculptor seems to have produced an entirely novel object, we can always follow the process back to the original undifferentiated lump, and we can make the successive stages by which we return to this condition as small as we wish.  At no point does anything emerge which is very different from what preceded it. (pg. 91, Skinner, 1953)

Sometimes, however, this process goes awry.  When an individual accidentally associates a consequence with a response, even though no actual relationship existed, superstitious behavior can result.  For example, if you provide a few seconds of access to food for a hungry pigeon every 20 seconds, regardless of what the pigeon is doing at the time, the pigeon will develop some form of food-getting ritual.  Since the food is delivered regardless of what the pigeon does, the ritual that develops is superstitious. The development of superstition in humans is believed to follow the same principles (Skinner, 1953, 1987).

It has become commonly accepted, at least in psychology, that children should never receive positive punishment (e.g., spanking).  Instead, parents should use negative punishment (e.g., a timeout) and then redirect their child’s behavior in positive ways. How does this compare to how you were punished, and do you agree that this is always true?

Supplemental Materials

Operant Conditioning: Positive-and-Negative Reinforcement and Punishment

This video [6:58] explains operant conditioning and describes the difference between positive and negative reinforcement and punishment.  An example is provided to demonstrate each concept.



If You Know Nothing About Personality: 08 Skinner

This video [4:50] reviews Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning and the role of reinforcement and punishment in changing behavior.



B.F. Skinner Operant Conditioning

This video [4:01] explains operant conditioning and provides an example of the Skinner box experiment.



Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson and Skinner

This video [4:57] explains classical and operant conditioning.



Kelland, M. (2017). Personality Theory. OER Commons. Retrieved October 28, 2019, from  Licensed under CC-BY-4.0. 

khanacademymedicine.  (2013, October 11). Operant conditioning: Positive-and-negative reinforcement and punishment| MCAT | Khan Academy.  [Video File]. Retrieved from Standard YouTube License.

Ken Tangen.  (2010, March 16).  If you know nothing about personality 08: Skinner.  [Video File]. Retrieved from  Standard YouTube License.

Olivia Escudero.  (2018, November 28).  B.F. Skinner operant conditioning (full video).  [Video File]. Retrieved from  Standard YouTube License.

Alana Snow.  (2015, October 13).  Behaviorism: Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner.  [Video File]. Retrieved from   Standard YouTube License.


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PSY321 Course Text: Theories of Personality by The American Women's College Psychology Department and Michelle McGrath is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.