Burrhus Frederick Skinner

Devolopmental Theorists

Skinner is regarded as the father of Operant Conditioning

Skinner coined the term operant conditioning; it means roughly changing of behavior by the use of reinforcement which is given after the desired response. Skinner identified three types of responses or operant that can follow behavior.

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Skinner - Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html


Skinner was never highly influenced by critical reactions, he is not interested in the right or wrong because they are either effective or ineffective, and arguments of no avail. For that reason he is not interested in psychological theories, rational equations, or other verbal systems that are required to be proven right.

Following the principles of Bacon, Skinner rejects verbal authority, stating, "I have studied nature not books asking questions of the organism rather than those who have studied the organism."... "Observation overemphasizes stimuli; emperimentation includes the rest of the contingencies which generate repertoires" (Dews, 1970, p18).


Operant conditioning has been widely applied in clinical settings (i.e., behavior modification) as well as teaching (i.e., classroom management) and instructional development (e.g., programmed instruction). Parenthetically, it should be noted that Skinner rejected the idea of theories of learning (see Skinner, 1950).


By way of example, consider the implications of reinforcement theory as applied to the development of programmed instruction (Markle, 1969; Skinner, 1968)

1. Practice should take the form of question (stimulus) - answer (response) frames which expose the student to the subject in gradual steps

2. Require that the learner make a response for every frame and receive immediate feedback

3. Try to arrange the difficulty of the questions so the response is always correct and hence a positive reinforcement

4. Ensure that good performance in the lesson is paired with secondary reinforcers such as verbal praise, prizes and good grades.


  1. Behavior that is positively reinforced will reoccur; intermittent reinforcement is particularly effective
  2. Information should be presented in small amounts so that responses can be reinforced ("shaping")
  3. Reinforcements will generalize across similar stimuli ("stimulus generalization") producing secondary conditioning


Baby box Experiment

"The "baby box" was Skinners attempt at mechanizing the care of a child, prompted by the birth of his second child. This box would maintain temperature of the baby allowing them to only wear a diaper. Through a linen-like surface through which warm air rises, moved by convection or a fan, depending on the outside temperature. Their second daughter, Deborah, used the baby box for 2.5 years. Skinner's satisfaction with the box was published in an article he had written in the Ladies Home Journal, now many babies have been raised in what is called an Aircrib" (Dews, 1970, p12).