Monday, February 2, 2009



Frederic Skinner's work was influenced by Pavlov’s experiments and the ideas of John Watson, father of behaviorism. He especially was interested in stimulus-response reactions of humans to various situations, and experimented with pigeons and rats to develop his theories. He took the notion of conditioned reflexes developed by Ivan Pavlov and applied it to the study of behavior.

One of his best known inventions is the Skinner box. It contains one or more levers which an animal can press, one or more stimulus lights and one or more places in which reinforcers like food can be delivered.

In one of Skinners’ experiments a starved rat was introduced into the box. When the lever was pressed by the rat a small pellet of food was dropped onto a tray. The rat soon learned that when he pressed the lever he would receive some food. In this experiment the lever pressing behavior is reinforced by food.

If pressing the lever is reinforced (the rat gets food) when a light is on but not when it is off, responses (pressing the lever) continue to be made in the light but seldom, if at all, in the dark. The rat has formed discrimination between light and dark. When one turns on the light, a response occurs, but that is not a Pavlovian conditioned reflex response.

In this experiment Skinner demonstrated the ideas of "operant conditioning" and "shaping behavior." Unlike Pavlov's "classical conditioning," where an existing behavior (salivating for food) is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus (ringing of a bell or a metronome), operant conditioning is the rewarding of an act that approaches a new desired behavior.

Skinner applied his findings about animals to human behavior and even developed teaching machines so students could learn bit by bit, uncovering answers for an immediate "reward." Computer-based self-instruction uses many of the principles of Skinner's technique.

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