Behaviorism is a branch of psychology, which, as its name indicates, is based on the observation of the conduct and the analysis of it. Behaviorism emerged as a counterposition to psychoanalysis and aimed to provide a scientific, demonstrable, and measurable basis for Psychology. Pioneers such as Watson and Pavlov began to experiment with several animals that laid the foundations for Behaviorism and conditioning.

A few years later, psychologist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (B. F. Skinner) added a great discovery to this branch of psychology: operant conditioning. Do you want to learn B. F. Skinner’s theory about Behaviorism and conditioning? Then we recommend you continue reading this psychology article.

B. F. Skinner’s Behavioral Theory

B. F. Skinner (1904-1990) was an American psychologist, inventor, and writer recognized worldwide for bringing scientific rigor to Psychology. In 1938 he wrote his first study called “the behavior of organisms: an experimental analysis,” and he wrote on paper everything he studied until, in 1974, he summed up his work in a famous work called ” On Behaviorism.”

In this book, Skinner explains the fundamentals of behavioral analysis and how his animal experiments can be extrapolated to human psychological therapy. The author explains how psychology can be understood from an operant point of view and how our behavior affects our thoughts.

Classical conditioning of Watson and Pavlov

As we discussed earlier, Behavioral Psychology was born years before Skinner published his studies. Two great pioneers of this branch of psychology with John Watson and Ivan Pavlov studied what we know today as Classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning is a procedure by which we can induce a reflex or response to an animal (and in some cases, to a person). With experiments such as Pavlov’s dogs or the induction of a phobia to a Watson child, it was intended to demonstrate that the human mind could be measured, observed, and modified through conduct.

Behavioral Psychology

The four basic principles of behavioral psychology are:

  • Psychology is a science, therefore it will use an empirical and demonstrable experimental methodology.
  • This methodology is characterized by using variables that can be measured (example: measuring anxiety by the number of beats Per Minute)
  • The results of laboratory experiments can be extrapolated to real life.
  • Behavior is learned, there is no form of innatism (total rejection of other branches of psychology)

The contribution of Skinner’s conditioning to this discipline is very important, he added the principle of reinforcement, the concept of reward, and defined operant conditioning, all through experiments such as Skinner’s famous box.

In the following image, we can observe the process of classical conditioning, where a salivation response is induced to a dog (Pavlov experiment).

operant conditioning, Pavlov experiment

Skinner Box

Officially called “operant conditioning chamber,” Skinner’s box is one of the most well-known inventions in the history of psychology. It was created with the aim of demonstrating that an animal’s behavior (first, using a rat) could be induced and modified by external stimuli. The box is one of the pillars on which is based and known as the behaviorism of Skinner.

Parts Of The Box

The box had the following elements:

  • Two lights
  • Speaker
  • Button
  • Electrified ground (in some cases)
  • Food dispenser

Operation of Skinner’s box

  1. A rat was introduced inside the box (normally it was deprived of food before so that its motivation to feed was greater)
  2. The rat experimented in its new environment until it discovered the button and pressed it. Automatically a food unit (pellet) left the dispenser after the button was pressed.
  3. The rat, motivated to get more food, modified its behavior, and quickly learned to press the button to receive food (behavior Association-encouragement and positive reinforcement).)
  4. Conditioning could also occur by the omission of a negative stimulus (negative reinforcement). In this case, the rat was put into the box with the electrified floor, if it pressed the button, the current stopped passing through the floor. In this way, the rat learned to push the button to stop feeling pain.

Skinner And Operant Conditioning

As we have seen, operant conditioning is somewhat more complicated than the Classical conditioning of Watson and Pavlov. In this case, the association is not between a stimulus and a reflection but between a stimulus, a behavior, and a reinforcement.

In other words, in the case of operant conditioning, it is essential to learn about what happens after the behavior is required. For example, in the case of Skinner’s box, the rat learns that after pressing the button, it receives a prize.

Positive And Negative Reinforcement

As the behaviorism is based on measuring behaviors, everything that happens in the conditioning of Skinner is thoroughly analyzed and categorized. Therefore, we can distinguish two types of reinforcements in the theory of B. F. Skinner on behaviorism and operant conditioning:

  • Positive reinforcement, an element that acts as a reward, usually meets some basic needs or generates a pleasurable response.
  • Negative reinforcement, an element that generates a response of pain, displeasure or discomfort, acts as a punishment.

We can find examples of operant conditioning in our day. For example, we strive to study because we have learned to receive a reward later (good grades and recognition) or, we take medicine to avoid a headache, just as the rat presses a button to avoid the pain of the electrified ground.

Criticism Of Skinner’s Behavior

Despite being a model, it is measurable, empirical, and the theory of B. F. Skinner on behaviorism and conditioning is quite reductionist to speak of the human mind.

The main criticism of Behaviorism is the lack of internal vision and the simplicity of its model, it is not credible that the human psyche can be measured and understood through experiments carried out on other animals.


  1. I believe that the definition of negative reinforcement is incorrect. In order for something to be considered reinforcement, it must increase a behavior. I like to think of it as math, positive and negative, adding and subtracting, rather than good or bad. Negative reinforcement is when something undesirable is taken away when target behavior is exhibited ex. teacher making the amount of homework less if the students are able to sit in their desks quietly during reading time.


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