Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not only one of the most important historical figures in psychology; it is, in many ways, responsible for its assertion as a science.
His contributions to this field are not only methodological, but also philosophical, and his radical behavioralism, although not at all hegemonic at the present time, allowed, among other things, that in the second half of the twentieth century such a useful tool than cognitive behavioral therapy. , very inspired by this researcher. Let’s see what were the main keys to BF Skinner’s theory.
A shift towards operant conditioning
When BF Skinner began his studies, behaviorism was essentially based on simple conditioning inherited from Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and popularized by John B. Watson.
Explained much above, this first approach to behavioral psychology proposed to modify behavior by making present pleasant or unpleasant stimuli at the same time as other stimuli for which the individual was intended to develop aversion or pleasure. I say “individuals” and not “people” because the simple conditioning was so rudimentary that it even worked with life forms with a nervous system as simple as that of reptiles or molluscs.
For example, in Pavlov’s famous canine experiments, this physiologist made animals salivate when they heard a certain sound., As had been associated with food in previous trials. The key to simple conditioning was to match stimuli with each other.
Skinner admitted that simple conditioning could be useful in some cases, but ruled out the possibility that the behavior could be explained solely by this mechanism, among other things because the conditions for it to occur rarely occur outside of it. a laboratory. However, yes believed that our behavior (and that of many other life forms) can be understood as a process of adjusting to both pleasant and unpleasant experiences., Useful and not useful.
The change brought by BF Skinner’s theory was in another direction: instead of focusing on how stimuli are associated with each other, he focused on how associated actions are performed and the consequences. of these actions. What happens to us because of something we have done is, in itself, a stimulus that we take note of. Thus, Skinner considers the perception-action-perception loop.
For Skinner, learning from the consequences of how he interacts with the world was the primary mechanism for behavior modification. Humans and animals always perform all kinds of actions, no matter how insignificant, and these always have a consequence for us, which we receive in the form of stimuli. This association between what we do and what we notice are the consequences of our actions is the foundation of operant conditioning, also called instrumental conditioning, which according to Skinner, this was the basic form of learning in many life forms.
But the fact that the mechanisms of operative conditioning are fundamentally the same in many types of organisms does not mean that the content they occur on would be the same whether we are a mouse or a human. Members of our species have the ability to create abstract concepts and generate autobiographical memory, but for Skinner, the emergence of these refined thought forms was the top of the pyramid of a process that began with learning from our own. successes and our mistakes in real time.
In addition, the methodology generally used by behavioral psychologists was based on animal models (experimentation with rats, pigeons, etc.), which is in some ways a limitation.
The black box and the skinner
Behaviorists have always been well known for their conceptualization of mental processes as phenomena that occur in a “black box”, a metaphor that serves to indicate the impossibility of observing from the outside what is going on in the mind. women. however, the black box of Skinner’s theory was not the same as that of the early behaviorists. While psychologists such as John B. Watson denied the existence of a mental world, Skinner believed that the study of mental processes could be useful in psychology.
However, for BF Skinner, in practice, it was not necessary to do so, and it was sufficient to start from the analysis of the relationships between measurable and directly observable actions and the consequences of these actions. The reason for his position on this issue was that he did not see our mind as anything other than part of the path from performing the action to recording the stimuli that are (or appear to be). actions, although with the added difficulty it is practically impossible to study objectively.
In fact, the very concept of “mind” was misleading for Skinner: it suggests that there is something in us that makes thoughts and plans of action spring up out of nowhere, as if our psychic life is disconnected. of our environment. that’s why in BF Skinner’s theory, the object of study of psychology is behavior, not the mind or spirit and behavior at the same time.
According to this behaviorist, what is often called a “mental process” was in fact another form of behavior, something that is set in motion to make the best fit between our actions and the expected consequences.
The Legacy of BF Skinner’s Theory
The Theoretical Legacy of the Father of Radical Behavioralism suppose a total rejection of psychoanalysis’ own speculative methods of investigation and a research proposal outside of introspection and focused only on objective and easily measured variables.
In addition, he indicated the risk of transforming very abstract theoretical constructs (such as “mind” or “demotivation”) into causal elements that explain our behaviors. To put it another way, for Skinner to say that someone has committed a crime because of their feeling of loneliness is like saying that a locomotive is moving because of movement.
Being so supported in operant conditioning, Skinner’s work animal experimentation claimed as a useful source of knowledge, widely criticized by both cognitivist psychologists and various philosophers, according to whom there is a qualitative leap between the mental life of non-human animals and members of our species. However, animal models are still widely used in psychology to approximate the types of behaviors present in our species.