Historical Context

Cat Spray No More

How to stop cats peeing outside the litter box

Get Instant Access

Skinner's theory of operant conditioning did not spring from his mind alone. Several theorists were profoundly influential in laying a foundation for the work Skinner was to build on.

All behavioral theories owe some debt of gratitude to Ivan Pavlov for developing the principles of classical conditioning. Pavlov, who won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on digestion, was best known for his experiments on basic learning processes. While studying the secretion of stomach acids and salivation in dogs in response to eating various amounts of food, he discovered that even the mere sight of a person who normally fed the dogs could elicit an anticipation of food by the canines. In other words, the dogs were not only responding to the biological need to eat but also demonstrated that there was learning going on in the process of feeding. A neutral stimulus such as the experimenter's footsteps, when paired with food, could bring about a similar response as the food alone. This type of learning Pavlov called classical conditioning.

The basic process of classical conditioning can be described in several steps. It first needs the presence of a neutral stimulus that does not elicit specific response in the participant prior to the experiment. In Pavlov's classic experiment, the neutral stimulus was the sound of a bell. Ringing the bell prior to the experiment did not elicit salivation in a dog. The second component is the unconditioned stimulus, which in this experiment was meat. At the mere sight of meat the dog would salivate. It is called the unconditioned stimulus because the dog salivates instinctively and needs no training for this response. Hence, the dog's response is an unconditioned response. During the conditioning process, the bell is routinely rung just before the presentation of the meat. Over time, the ringing of the bell alone will bring about salivation. Conditioning is complete when the previously neutral stimulus of the bell (now the conditioned response) is now able to elicit salivation (conditioned stimulus).

Although the initial conditioning experiments performed by Pavlov and others were conducted on animals, classical conditioning principles were soon being used in various ways to explain everyday human behavior. Pavlov's conditioning techniques provided psychology with behavioral ways in which complex behavior could be better understood and built upon by other theorists.

At approximately the same period of time that Pavlov was experimenting with animals and developing his classical conditioning theory, a man by the name of Edward Thorndike was conducting groundbreaking experiments of his own. Thorndike is one of the most influential theorists of the early twentieth century and considered a very important researcher in the development of animal theory. Thorndike believed that psychology must study behavior, not mental elements or conscious experiences, and thus he reinforced the trend toward greater objectivity within the emerging field of psychology.

One of Thorndike's major contributions to the study of psychology was his work with animals. Through long, extensive research with these animals, he constructed devices called "puzzle boxes." These were essentially wooden crates that required the manipulation of various combinations of latches, levers, strings to open. A cat would be put in one of these puzzle boxes and would eventually manage to escape from it by trial and error. On a successive attempt, the amount of time it took the cat to escape decreased. Thorndike compared the results of several cats and found a similar pattern. If he rewarded the behavior of the cat, the behavior was repeated, if he did not, it would cease. He surmised that certain stimuli and responses become connected or dissociated from each other in the process of learning. This learning principle he termed the law of effect.

This evaluation led Thorndike to conclude that animals learn by trial and error, or reward and punishment. Thorndike used the cat's behavior in a puzzle box to generalize what happens when all beings learn anything. All learning involves the formation of connections, and connections were strengthened according to the law of effect. Intelligence is the ability to form connections, and humans are the most evolved animal because they form more connections then any other being. He continued his study with learning by writing his famous book called Animal Intelligence. In this he argued that we study animal behavior, not animal consciousness, for the ultimate purpose of controlling behavior.

A subtle but important distinction should be made between trial and error learning (instrumental learning) and classical conditioning. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus becomes associated with part of a reflex, which is either the unconditioned stimulus or the unconditioned response. In trial and error learning, no reflex is involved. A reinforcing or punishing event, which is also a type of stimulus, alters the strength of the association between a neutral stimulus and the arbitrary response.

Thorndike's early research served as the foundation for Skinner's work that was beginning in the latter years of Thorndike's career. Whereas Thorndike's goal was to get his cats to learn to obtain food by leaving the box, animals in Skinner's box learned to obtain food by operating on their environment within the box. Skinner became interested in specifying how behavior varied as a result of alterations in the environment.

One of the biggest influences on Skinner's ideas came from the work of John B. Watson, often referred to as the "father of behaviorism." Watson carried the torch of the behaviorist position, claiming that human behavior could be explained entirely in terms of reflexes, stimulus-response associations, and the effects of reinforcers. His 1914 book entitled Behavior: An Introduction to Comparative Psychology became the official statement of his theory and was widely read at the time.

Watson's lab work with rats enabled him to discover that he could train rats to open a puzzle box like Thorndike's for a small food reward. He also studied maze learning but simplified the task dramati cally. One type of maze he used was a long straight alley with food at the end. Watson found that once the animal was well trained at running this maze, it did so almost automatically. Once started by the stimulus of the maze, its behavior becomes a series of associations between movements rather than stimuli in the outside world. The development of other well-controlled behavioral techniques by Watson also allowed him to explore animal sensory abilities.

Watson's theoretical position was even more extreme than Thorndike's. He would have no place for intellectual concepts like pleasure or distress in his explanations of behavior. He essentially rejected the law of effect proposed by Thorndike, denying that pleasure or discomfort caused stimulus-response associations to be learned. For Watson, all that was important was the frequency of occurrence of stimulus-response pairings. Reinforcers might cause some responses to occur more often in the presence of particular stimuli, but they did not act directly to cause their learning.

After Watson published his second book Psychology from the Standpoint of a Behaviorist in 1919, he became the founder of the American school of behaviorism. In this book he addressed a number of practical human problems such as education, the development of emotional reaction, and the effects of factors such as alcohol or drugs on human performance. Watson believed that mental illness was the result of "habit distortion," which might be caused by fortuitous learning of inappropriate associations. These associations then go on to influence a person's behavior so that it became ever more abnormal.

Watson became a very controversial figure in psychology for several reasons. He was credited with wedding behavioral techniques with celebrity endorsements of products and services to manipulate motives and emotions. Now a widely used strategy for marketing and advertising, during the 1920s, it was not well received by many people. In a larger sense, Watson was a pivotal figure in shaping public perception away from the dominant view of psychoanalysis and the internal processes of behavior. His call was for a society based on scientifically shaped and controlled behavior. His ideas offered hope to those disenchanted with old ideas.

Skinner probably first read some of Watson's work in the summer of 1926, when he was 22 years old, but it wasn't until the spring of 1928 that Skinner took the writings of Watson more seriously. Years later, when Skinner had established himself as an independent thinker and writer on radical behaviorism, he said that Watson had brought the "promise of a behavioral science," but this was not the same thing as delivering the science itself. But Skinner agreed with Watson in that he denied that behavior is determined by processes with the physiology of the organism.

By the 1920s, the field of psychology had already captured the public's attention. Given Watson's charisma, personal charm, persuasiveness, and message of hope, Americans were enthralled by what one writer called an "outbreak" of psychology. Much of the public was convinced that psychology provided a path to health, happiness, and prosperity. Psychological advice columns sprouted up in the pages of the daily newspapers. Watson's behaviorism was the first stage in the evolution of the behavioral school of thought. The second stage, sometimes referred to as neobehav-iorism, can be dated from about 1930 to about 1960 and includes the work of Edward Tolman, Clark Hull, and B. F. Skinner.

Edward Tolman was one of the early converts to behaviorism and like Watson, rejected the notion of introspection and inner processes for determining behavior. He was firmly committed to working only with those behaviors that were objective and accessible to observation. Tolman is recognized as a forerunner of contemporary cognitive psychology, and his work had a great impact, especially his research on problems of learning. Some of his core principles were later used by Skinner and other behaviorists.

Clark Hull and his followers dominated American psychology from the 1940s until the 1960s. Hull had a proficient command of mathematics and formal logic and applied this knowledge to psychological theory in a way that no one had before. Hull's form of behaviorism was more sophisticated and complex than Watson's. Hull described his behaviorism and his image of human nature in mechanistic terms and regarded human behavior as automatic. He thought behaviorists should regard their subjects as machines and believed the machines would one day replicate many human cognitive functions. As might be guessed, Hull drew much criticism for his hard-line approach to the mechanism of human processes, but his influence on psychology at the time was substantial.

Beginning in the 1950s, Skinner became the major figure in American behavioral psychology. He attracted a large, loyal, and enthusiastic group of followers. His influence extended far beyond the professional community of psychologists at work in laboratories. His popularity was largely as a result of the advent of television in the early 1950s. His two most widely read books, Walden Two and Beyond Freedom and Dignity, thrust him into popular culture.

It was the modern medium of television, however, that made him a household name. He would regularly appear on television talk shows to advance his views on operant conditioning and how it applied to everyday life. In a short period of time, he became a celebrity and arguably the best-known psychologist of that era.

Skinner's system of psychology reflects his early life experiences. According to his view, life is a product of past reinforcements. He claimed that his life was just as predetermined and orderly as his system dictated all human lives should be. He believed his experiences could be traced solely and directly to stimuli in his environment. Having been raised by a mother who was rigid in her discipline and by a father who tended toward being verbally critical of Skinner, praise was not common in his home life. Perhaps there is a correlation in his theory with his most important concept of reinforcement. Operant conditioning states that for a behavior to be repeated, it must be positively reinforced. The centrality of that theme in his theory has been mentioned by some scholars as a response to his own desire for more praise and encouragement from his parents.

In 1938 Skinner published what was arguably the most influential work on animal behavior of the century, entitled The Behavior of Organisms. Skinner resurrected the law of effect in more starkly behavioral terms and provided a technology that allowed sequences of behavior produced over a long time to be studied objectively. His invention of the Skinner box was a great improvement on the individual learning trials of both Watson and Thorndike. Skinner's theory would eventually become known as operant conditioning and would become one of the most enduring theories of the twentieth century.

Was this article helpful?

0 0
Anxiety and Depression 101

Anxiety and Depression 101

Everything you ever wanted to know about. We have been discussing depression and anxiety and how different information that is out on the market only seems to target one particular cure for these two common conditions that seem to walk hand in hand.

Get My Free Ebook

Post a comment