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23/6/2014 B.F.

Skinner' s Behavioural Theory 1/3
B.F. Skinner's Behavioural Theory
Author: Elizabeth Grace - Updated: 13 March 2014 | Comment
Parents have long known that children respond to a system of rewards
and punishments. While to say that this is a simplification of the
theories of famed American behaviourist B.F. Skinner would be an
understatement, it is accurately descriptive of the most basic aspect
of his beliefs. Operant behaviour and operant conditioning, Skinner's
most widely acclaimed work, is based on a system of both positive
and negative reinforcement.
Operant Behaviour and Conditioning
While it is commonly known that behaviour is affected by its
consequences, Skinner's theory of operant conditioning further states
that the process does not require repeated efforts, but is instead an
immediate reaction to a familiar stimulus.
Beginnings of the Rat & Food Experiment
In an experiment with a rat using food as a reward (which would work for many of us, as well!):
The rat was placed in a box
Over the course of a few days, food was occasionally delivered through an automatic dispenser
Before long, the rat approached the food tray as soon as the sound of the dispenser was heard, clearly
anticipating the arrival of more food
The Next Step of the Experiment
Researchers raised a small lever on the wall of the box and when the rat touched it, the food dispenser
provided a snack. After the first self-induced meal, the rat repeatedly touched the lever in order to get more
food (smart rat!)
To the hungry rodent, the sound of the dispenser became a reinforcer when it was first associated with
feedings and continued to be so until after a while, researchers stopped providing food when the lever was
pressed. Soon after that, the rat stopped touching the lever.
Positive and Negative Reinforcers and the Uniqueness of Humans
Reinforcers can be positive or negative and both are used to strengthen behaviour. Unlike animals, humans
(the big ones as well as the little ones) often respond to verbal operants by:
taking advice
listening to the warnings of others
and obeying given rules and laws
Even without having personally experienced any negative consequences from disobeying.
The knowledge of what COULD happen if certain behaviours are chosen can be enough to keep us from
acting in certain ways. Although this isn't always the case, with many lessons being learned "the hard way",
the ability to benefit from the experiences of others as examples is a uniquely human characteristic.
The Rat Experiment and Negative Reinforcement
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Skinner again experimented with rats to show how negative reinforcement can also strengthen behaviour.
Skinner placed the rat inside the box and a sent electric current into the box, as the rat moved around the box
it would knock the lever by accident and the electric current would stop. The rats soon learned that when they
were placed in the box to go straight to the lever to turn off the electric current. Knowing they could escape the
electric current caused the rats to repeatedly go to the lever.
Not only were the rats taught to stop the electric current but also to avoid it completely. Skinner eventually
taught the rats to press the lever when a light came on in the box which would stop the electric current before it
even started.
Escape Learning and Avoidance Learning
The responses that the rats demonstrated are called; Escape learning and Avoidance learning
1. Escape learning because the rats learned to press the lever in order to escape the current
2. Avoidance learning because the rats learned to press the lever when the light came on thus avoiding
the current altogether
How Does All This Relate to Children?
One of the aspects important to human behaviour, though, is the feelings associated with behaviour that is
controlled by conditioning. When previous behaviours have been rewarded, children are likely to repeat those
behaviours happily and willingly, feeling that they are doing what they 'want' to be doing. If, on the other hand,
children choose behaviours in order to avoid a repeat of negative reinforcement, they may behave
appropriately, but will be inclined to feel that their freedoms are being suppressed. In reality, the actual
freedom still exists, of course. Children, like the rest of us, are free to behave in any manner that they choose,
as long as they are willing to accept the consequences of their actions.
Behaviour Modification By Changing Consequences
Behaviour modification typically consists of changing the consequences of an action or applying new
consequences to guide behaviour. In the past, most parents chose to control the behaviour of their children by
using negative reinforcement, that is, misbehaviour or disregarding house rules resulted in punishments.
Today, many parents (and even school systems and other childhood authorities) are inclined to provide
positive reinforcement to encourage good behaviour, reserving negative reinforcement techniques only as a
last resort. While the results are not usually as immediate, they are typically seen as healthier, providing
children with appropriate behavioural guidelines while allowing them their dignity.
The Antecedent, Behaviour, Consequence Model
Many early learning settings follow what is referred to as the A,B,C behaviour model - where, whatever has
caused the behaviour is identified and consequences are used to reinforce or prevent this behaviour
Antecedent - the event or 'trigger'
Behaviour - the ensuing behaviour, i.e.'Good' or 'Bad'
Consequence - the subsequent positive or negative results
An example of this in practice in an early years setting (such as a nursery or pre-school), may be a reward
chart: children who behave in the manner expected receive a sticker or place on the chart; the reward
encourages further good behaviour. It may also improve the behaviour of others by promoting positive role
Obviously, it benefits both children and their parents when positive reinforcement techniques are chosen as a
means of guiding children's behaviours, making for a more pleasant and respectfully run household. Even
babies and very young children respond well to a system where rewards exists, repeating behaviours when
they elicit big smiles and hugs from Mum and Dad. As children grow, using positive reinforcement to
encourage appropriate behaviour can help parents to encourage their kids' continued cooperation.
Classic Theories
There are more articles on classic theories available on this site, including:
Freud's Theory of Developmental Phases
Piaget's Theory of Cognitive Development.
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