Skinner’s box: what it is and how it influenced psychology

Burrhus Frederick Skinner is undoubtedly one of the great psychologists of the twentieth century. His contributions to the science of the mind led to powerful therapeutic techniques such as flea economics and aversion therapy.

His main contribution, the discoveries of operative conditioning, could not have been made without his well-known Skinner Box, An artefact that he used to further study this phenomenon with pigeons and extrapolate to humans.

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

    What is a Skinner Box?

    Burrhus Frederick Skinner is, without a doubt, one of the leading figures in behavioral psychology of the twentieth century., With the figure of John B. Watson. Skinner contributed to behavioral science by creating a sophisticated artifact that allowed him to further study animal behavior, specifically experimenting as pigeons. From these experiences, he was able to describe and draw conclusions from 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 found, Mainly by the application of reinforcements. Reinforcements are events that follow a certain behavior performed by the body, and which in turn change the likelihood of that behavior occurring, either increasing or decreasing it.

    This definition of operant conditioning is a bit difficult to understand, so let’s give an everyday example. Imagine we have a small child, who whenever he wants a candy goes to his mother and pulls the bottom of his pants. The mother gives him the candy, which causes the child to associate the stretch of his pants with receiving a reward. In this way, the child learns that if he wants a candy, he will have to pull his mother’s pants, making him repeat this behavior more and more seeing that he has succeeded.


    To carry out the scientific study of operant conditioning, Skinner made his famous box. It aimed to measure how animals reinforce their behavior or not, in relation to the consequences of their actions..

    Skinner put a pigeon in his box, which had enough space to be able to chat freely inside the artifact. In the box was a small disc which, in case the bird bites it, will receive small balls of food.

    The animal did not discover the disc at first, but first randomly pecked the entire box until, at some point, it bit that disc and then got the reward. It was only a matter of time before the bird repeatedly pecked this record, seeing that he was given food and learning that if he did, he would be rewarded.

    To ensure that the pigeons pecked at the disc several times, Skinner kept the birds at three-quarters of their weight and thus kept them hungry. This way the pigeons would always want more food. Within minutes, the animals adjusted to how the box worked, repeatedly pecking the disc and hoping to receive a prize each time.

    Throughout the experiment, Skinner recorded the total number of times the pigeons pecked the disc, comparing it in graphs. While the original intention was for the pigeon to learn that by pecking it would get food, Skinner took it a step further, making sure that all pecks weren’t always rewarded. Sometimes I only rewarded every 10 bites, and other times once a minute. I wanted to see how changing the way the reward was obtained also changed the behavior.

    The purpose of these Skinner variations was to study the different behaviors of the pigeon. Most striking is that the researcher extrapolated the results to human behavior and in particular to gambling addiction.

    Skinner and pathological gambling

    From his experiments with pigeons and operant conditioning, Skinner drew some very useful conclusions for psychology, but most striking of all was that extrapolate their results with birds to people, especially those who have been victims of pathological gambling. Just as he had managed to get the pigeons to associate that by pecking a puck they would receive food, pathological gamblers associated pulling a lever to earn money sooner or later.

    The way that casinos and gambling halls produce gambling addictions is very similar to the way behavioral reinforcement programs work in conditioning experiments. The person puts their money in an environment in which they think they will receive a reward, either because they think they have a strategy and control the situation, or because really behind the slot machines or the roulette there is a kind of regularity , what causes a reward to be received every X attempts.

    Basically, Skinner’s box had served its inventor with the power to induce some sort of pathologically controlled game in pigeons. It was because of this that Skinner criticized the theories of his time proposed to explain pathological gambling, such as the idea that gambling addicts were because they wanted to punish themselves or because they felt a lot of gambling. emotions when betting. What really happened was that the game was a reinforcement program that induced psychological disturbance.

      The baby in a box

      Considering the well-known fame of Skinner’s box, it is inevitable to speak of another of his inventions which, far from being harmful, ended up gaining a reputation for being a version of the famous used-only box. with human children. It really wasn’t such a thing, but the rumors were very sour at the time, and the reputation of a behavioral experimenter made what might have been a great invention a “devilish” experiment.

      After having her first child, Skinner realized that raising a child was a truly exhausting thing. Upon learning that his wife was pregnant again, Skinner decide to design a cradle to facilitate the care of the little ones and lighten the burden on parents. In this way, with the birth of little Deborah in 1944, a revolutionary device in the care of babies will also emerge, a real automated cradle.

      It was a box about two meters high by one wide. The walls have been insulated to prevent outside noise from entering. The baby was placed on an inner mattress about three feet from the floor and could see the outside through a glass that went up and down. Inside, the box had a humidifier, heater and air filter that circulated hot and cool air inside the cradle. The rollers made it possible to change the dirty fabric of the mattress to a clean fabric, without having to open the cradle.

      As the interior was air-conditioned, the baby could go to diapers, so all parents had to do was watch to see if their needs had been met or if they needed food or care. Thanks to the fact that it was a closed cabin, there was no risk of the baby escaping or being injured when getting out of the cradle, and since it was an isolated environment, the entry of germs was prevented.

      absolutely, Skinner’s invention was a futuristic cradle, Very advanced for the time (even for today!). Skinner was really delighted with this innovative invention. No one in the 1940s would have imagined such a technology, which would surely have competed with television and the computer as one of the great inventions of the 20th century. Unfortunately, Skinner’s track record and the somewhat apt title in the magazine he promoted him to made this invention something of a device. human experimentation.

      Skinner featured this crib in the “Ladies Home Journal”, Focused on improving the lives of housewives by introducing new household cleaning products. Originally, the title of the article in which he presented his new invention would be “Baby Care Can Be Modernized” and was not going to be anything other than an informative article on the advantages of the new device invented by the prestigious psychologist. behavioral Skinner, already very famous in the decade of the forties.

      However, as of the magazine edition, he did not find this title very striking, so he decided to change it to “Baby in a Box”, a modification apparently which, unintentionally, would cause enormous controversy. On top of that, the magazine posted a photo of little Deborah using the device which, far from looking like taking care of her, looked like she had shut it down to see if she would press. a lever to receive food.

      Skinner’s title, hapless photography, and experimental fame led society to firmly believe that this psychologist was experimenting with children.. People thought he was tired of using pigeons and rats and now he preferred moldable babies to do all kinds of ethical experiments. World War II was in the latter, and it was no longer a secret what Nazi scientists had done to humans, so fear of human experimentation was on everyone’s lips.

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

      Other behavioral phenomena and the Skinner box

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

      1. Generalization

      Let’s say Skinner’s box instead of having a disc had three, different colors. For example, there is a red disc, a green disc, and a blue disc. If the pigeon pecks on any disk for food, we are talking about generalization. In other words, because he associated cutting a disc with food, he indiscriminately pecks at one of the three to get more food.

      2. Discrimination

      The discrimination would be that the pigeon learns that only one of these three records is the one that will give him food as a reward. For example, if you peck the green disc you will get food, but if you peck the red and blue you won’t.. In this way, the pigeon learns to distinguish the discs based on its color, associating the green color with food and the other two not receiving anything in return.

      3. Extinction

      The extinction would consist in eliminating a certain pipe, by means of the elimination of its reinforcement. Macaw, if the pigeon pecks a disk and, during several attempts, sees that it does not obtain anything, it stops emitting its pica-pica response. Now he considers that pecking the record will no longer receive a reward, which is over.

      4. Modeling

      BF Skinner also studied casting, a process by which behaviors that approach target behavior are reinforced. Because the behavior being pursued cannot always be achieved on the first try, it is necessary to condition the behavior so that, little by little, the behavior of the animal comes closer to the behavior that interests us in order to go and learn.

        5. Therapy

        Skinner’s findings have been extrapolated to psychological therapy. The best known methods derived from operant conditioning are flea economy and aversion therapy.

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

        Bibliographical references:

        • Skinner, BF (1975). The behavior of organisms. Barcelona: Fontanella.
        • Skinner, BF (1948). Walden Two. The science of human behavior is used to eradicate poverty, gender expression, government as we know it, create a lifestyle without it like war.
        • Skinner, BF (1966). Reinforcement constraints. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
        • Skinner, BF (1953). Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan

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