Skinner’s Box: What It Is And How It Influenced Psychology

Skinner box

Burrhus Frederick Skinner is, without a doubt, one of the great psychologists of the 20th century. His contributions to the science of the mind have given rise to powerful therapeutic techniques such as token economy and aversion therapy.

His main contribution, the findings of operant conditioning, could not have been made without his well-known skinner box a device he used to further study this phenomenon with pigeons and extrapolate it to humans.

Below we will see how this curious box worked, in addition to understanding some of the main behavioral phenomena that can be studied with it and understanding the controversy that existed with another invention also by Skinner.

What is a Skinner box?

Burrhus Frederick Skinner is, without a doubt, one of the greatest references of behavioral psychology of the 20th century, along with the figure of John B. Watson. Skinner contributed to behavioral science by creating a sophisticated device that allowed him to study animal behavior in more depth, specifically experimenting with pigeons. From these experiments he was able to describe and draw conclusions about an interesting behavioral process: operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a process in which Control is exercised over the behavior of an organism by controlling the variables and the environment in which it is located, especially through the application of reinforcements. Reinforcements consist of events that follow a certain behavior carried out by the organism, and that alter, in turn, the probability of that behavior occurring, either increasing or reducing it.

This definition of operant conditioning is somewhat difficult to understand, so we are going to give an everyday example. Let’s imagine that we have a small child, who every time he wants a candy he goes to his mother and stretches out the bottom of his pants. The mother gives him the candy, making the child associate pulling the pants with receiving a reward. In this way, the child learns that if he wants candy he will have to pull his mother’s pants, making him repeat this behavior more and more seeing that he has been successful.

The experiment

To carry out the scientific study of operant conditioning, Skinner made his well-known box. Its objective was to measure how animals reinforced or did not reinforce their behavior, in relation to the consequences of their actions.

Skinner put a pigeon in his box, which had enough space to be able to browse freely inside the contraption. In the box there was a small disc that, if the bird pecked it, would obtain small pellets of food.

The animal did not discover the disc the first time, but first randomly pecked the entire box until, at some point, it pecked that disc and immediately obtained the reward. It was a matter of time before the bird repeatedly pecked at that disc, seeing that he received food and learning that if he did it he would have a reward

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To ensure that the pigeons would peck at the discus several times, Skinner kept the birds at three-quarters of their weight, thus keeping them hungry. This way the pigeons would always want more food. In a matter of just a few minutes the animals adapted to the operation of the box, repeatedly pecking at the disc and hoping to receive a reward each time they did so.

Throughout the experiment Skinner recorded the total number of times the pigeons pecked at the disc, comparing them on graphs. Although the original intention was for the pigeon to learn that by pecking it would get food, Skinner went a little further, making it so that not all pecks were always rewarded. He sometimes only rewarded every 10 pecks, and other times once a minute. I wanted to see how changing the way the reward was obtained also changed the behavior.

The objective of these variations of Skinner was to study the different behaviors of the pigeon. The most striking thing is that the researcher extrapolated the results to human behavior and, especially, to gambling addiction.

Skinner and pathological gambling

From his experiments with pigeons and operant conditioning Skinner drew very useful conclusions for psychology, but the most striking thing about all this was that extrapolated his findings with birds to people, specifically those who were victims of pathological gambling In the same way that he had managed to get pigeons to associate that by pecking at a disc they would receive food, pathological gamblers associated pulling a lever with winning money sooner or later.

The way casinos and card rooms produce gambling addictions is very similar to how behavioral reinforcement programs work in operant conditioning experiments. The person bets his money in an environment in which he believes he will receive a reward, either because he thinks he has a strategy and controls the situation or because there is actually some kind of regularity behind slot machines or roulette, which causes a prize to be received every X attempts

Basically, Skinner’s box had helped its inventor to induce a kind of controlled pathological play in pigeons. It is thanks to this that Skinner was critical of the theories of his time proposed to explain pathological gambling, such as the idea that people who were pathological gamblers were so because they wanted to punish themselves or because they felt many emotions when they gambled. What really happened was that the game was a reinforcement program that induced a psychological disorder.

baby in a box

Given the well-known fame of Skinner’s box, it is inevitable to talk about another of his inventions that, far from being something harmful, ended up gaining fame for being a version of the famous box only used with human children. It really wasn’t such a thing, but the rumors were very acidic at the time and the fame of the behavioral experimenter made what could have been a great invention become a “diabolical” experiment.

After having her first child, Skinner realized that raising a child was really exhausting. Upon learning that his wife was pregnant again, Skinner decided to design a crib that would facilitate the care of the little ones and take some of the burden off parents In this way, with the birth of little Deborah in 1944, a revolutionary device in baby care would also be born, an authentic automated crib.

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It was a box that measured about two meters high and one meter wide. The walls were insulated to prevent outside noise from entering. The baby was placed on an indoor mattress three feet off the floor, and she could see outside through a glass that moved up and down. Inside, The box had a humidifier, heating and an air filter that circulated warm, fresh air inside the crib Some rollers allowed the dirty fabric of the mattress to be changed into clean fabric, without having to open the crib.

Since the interior was air-conditioned, the baby could wear diapers, so the only thing the parents had to do was keep an eye on whether the baby had relieved himself or whether he needed food or cuddles. Thanks to the fact that it was a closed space, there was no risk of the baby escaping or getting hurt getting out of the crib, and since it was an insulated environment, the entry of germs was prevented.

Definitely, Skinner’s invention was a futuristic crib, very advanced for the time (even for today!). Skinner was truly happy with this innovative invention. Nobody in the 1940s would have imagined such technology, which would surely have competed with television and the computer as one of the great inventions of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Skinner’s background and a somewhat apt title in the magazine where he promoted it made this invention become a kind of human experimentation device.

Skinner featured this crib in “Ladies Home Journal” magazine, focused on improving the lives of housewives by introducing them to new home cleaning products. Originally, the title of the article in which he presented his new invention was going to be “Baby care can be Modernized” and it was not going to be anything more than an informative article about the benefits of the new invented device. by the prestigious behavioral psychologist Skinner, already very famous in the 1940s.

However, the magazine’s edition did not consider that title to be very striking, so it decided to change it to “Baby in a Box”, an apparently modification that, without intending it or drinking it, would cause enormous controversy. . To make matters worse, the magazine put a photo of little Deborah using her device that, far from looking like she was taking care of her, looked like she had her locked up to see if she would press a lever to receive food.

Skinner’s title, unfortunate photograph, and experimental fame led society to firmly believe that this psychologist was experimenting on children People thought they had tired of using pigeons and rats and now preferred the moldable babies to do all kinds of experiments on them that touched the line of ethics. The Second World War was on its last legs, and it was no longer a secret what Nazi scientists had done with humans, so the fear of human experimentation was on everyone’s lips.

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Skinner denied everything and tried to see if he could get his invention the good fame he wanted, but his attempts were unsuccessful. He got some support to be able to market his revolutionary cradle, but society’s rejection was so great that, in the end, it ended up being discarded The rumors were so strong that, as an adult, Deborah herself had to defend her father, saying that he had never experimented with her as if she had been a dove in one of her boxes.

Other behavioral phenomena and Skinner’s box

Other interesting behavioral phenomena can be observed with the Skinner box.

1. Generalization

Let’s say that Skinner’s box, instead of having one disc, had three, of different colors. For example, there is a red disk, a green disk, and a blue disk. If the pigeon pecks any disc to obtain food, we speak of generalization That is, since it has associated pecking a disk with food, it pecks interchangeably at one of the three to obtain more food.

2. Discrimination

Discrimination would consist of the pigeon learning that only one of those three discs is the one that will give it food as a reward. For example, If you peck the green disk you will get food, but if you peck the red and blue disk you will not In this way the pigeon learns to discriminate between the discs according to their color, associating the green color with food and the other two with not receiving anything in return.

3. Extinction

Extinction would consist of eliminating a certain behavior, by eliminating its reinforcement. Now, If the pigeon pecks at a disc and, after several attempts, sees that it gets nothing, it stops emitting its pecking response Now he considers that by pecking the disc he will no longer receive any more reward, that it is over.

4. Molding

BF Skinner also investigated shaping, a process through which behaviors that approximate the target behavior are reinforced. Because the desired behavior cannot always be achieved on the first attempt, it is necessary to condition the behavior to ensure that, little by little, the animal’s behavior becomes more similar to the behavior that we want it to learn.

5. Therapy

Skinner’s findings were extrapolated to psychological therapy The best-known methods derived from operant conditioning are token economy and aversion therapy.

In order to apply operant conditioning in therapy, it is necessary to analyze the reinforcements and stimuli that lead a person to have a specific behavior, whether it is adaptive or maladaptive. By modifying the stimuli and reinforcements, the patient’s behaviors can be changed.