Skinner was a prolific author, publishing nearly 200 articles and more than 20 books. While behaviorism is no longer a dominant school of thought, his work in operant conditioning remains vital today. Mental health professionals often utilize operant techniques when working with clients, teachers frequently use reinforcement and punishment to shape behavior in the classroom, and animal trainers rely heavily on these techniques to train dogs and other animals. Skinner’s remarkable legacy has left both a lasting mark on psychology and numerous other fields ranging from philosophy to education.Here are some contributions of Skinner.
During his time at Harvard, Skinner became interested in studying human behavior in an objective and scientific way. He developed what he referred to as an operant conditioning apparatus, which later become known as a “Skinner box.” The device was a chamber that contained a bar or key that an animal could press in order to receive food, water, or some other form of reinforcement.
It was during this time at Harvard that he also invented the cumulative recorder, a device that recorded responses as a sloped line. By looking at the slope of the line, which indicated the rate of response, Skinner was able to see that response rates depended upon what happened after the animal pressed the bar. That is, higher response rates followed rewards while lower response rates followed a lack of rewards. The device also allowed Skinner to see that the schedule of reinforcement that was used also influenced the rate of response.
Using this device, he found that behavior did not depend on the preceding stimulus as Watson and Pavlov maintained. Instead, Skinner found that behaviors were dependent on what happens after the response. Skinner called this operant behavior.Skinner identified reinforcement as any event that strengthens the behavior it follows. The two types of reinforcement he identified were positive reinforcement (favorable outcomes such as reward or praise) and negative reinforcement (the removal of unfavorable outcomes).
Skinner took a teaching position at the University of Minnesota following his marriage. While teaching at the University of Minnesota and during the height of World War II, Skinner became interested in helping with the war effort. He received funding for a project that involved training pigeons to guide bombs since no missile guidance systems existed at the time.
In “Project Pigeon,” as it was called, pigeons were placed in the nose cone of a missile and were trained to peck at a target that would then direct the missile toward the intended target. The project never came to fruition, since the development of radar was also underway, although Skinner had considerable success working with the pigeons. While the project was eventually canceled, it did lead to some interesting findings and Skinner was even able to teach the pigeons to play ping-pong.
The Baby Tender
In 1943, B.F. Skinner also invented the “baby tender” at the request of his wife. It is important to note that the baby tender is not the same as the “Skinner box,” which was used in Skinner’s experimental research. Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn’t need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on popularly.
Skinner also developed an interest in education and teaching after attending his daughter math class in 1953. Skinner noted that none of the students received any sort of immediate feedback on their performance. Some students struggled and were unable to complete the problems while others finished quickly but really didn’t learn anything new. Instead, Skinner believed that the best approach would be to create some sort of device that would shape behavior, offering incremental feedback until a desired response was achieved.
He started by developing a math teaching machine that offered immediate feedback after each problem. However, this initial device did not actually teach new skills. Eventually, he was able to develop a machine that delivered incremental feedback and presented material in a series of small steps until students acquired new skills, a process known as programmed instruction. Skinner later published a collection of his writings on teaching and education titled The Technology of Teaching.