The Skinner Box is also known as the operant conditioning chamber. It is an apparatus used in the study of behavioral psychology, where the experimental analysis of behavior is applied to study animal behavior. B.F Skinner, a psychologist, invented this apparatus while he was still a graduate student at Harvard University. Skinner’s studies resulted in his development of the theory of operant conditioning.

B. F. Skinner and the Operant Conditioning Chamber

The principle of the Skinner Box as it was originally developed was to analyze the response of an organism operating in its environment when it encounters a reinforcer. Skinner used animals in his experiments to formulate or flesh out theory applicable to people. A few examples of his work in this respect include schedules of reinforcement, behavior modification and shaping. The Skinner Box itself is light- and sound-proof and features at least one primary reinforcer and one operandum. The box has to be big enough to comfortably allow room for motion for lab animals; sometimes, the floors of these boxes feature an electrified net to administer electric shock to the animals. One of Skinner’s first experiments in operant conditioning involved rats that were most frequently pre-conditioned to understand the nature of a food pellet, and primed to form an association between receiving the pellets and the activation of a pedal within the box. Skinner observed that once the rats became conditioned to activating the pedal to receive food pellets, their rate of activation would drop when they were not specifically seeking food. However, when Skinner altered the mechanism such that the release of the pellets occurred only intermittently upon the activation of the pedal, the rate of activation increased. Skinner theorized that in the inconsistent reward was, in fact, a greater motivator for action because the reward, while still desired, was not guaranteed with each repetition of the action.


Operant conditioning carries over very applicably to the concept of marketing products. In example, advertisers know that there are three types of operant conditioning: negative and positive reinforcement, as well as all-out punishment. In the first two, the consequences for a behavior are either negative or positive, therefore resulting in changed behavior that tries to either increase or decrease the negative or positive consequence. For instance, if a consumer tries a food that looks tasty and then eats it to discover that it really does taste deliciously, then he will eat more of the food. It should be noted that marketers have restricted power to use negative reinforcement on consumers, though it can occur, as in the case of parking meters being employed to deter people from occupying precious parking space.


Designers of modern video games are using the principles of Skinner in creating new games. The concept of operant conditioning is present in the design of many games. Both consistent and inconsistent rewards are present within the basic structure of many of the most popular online multiplayer games, which produce much of their revenue through subscription services. Players who know that every treasure chest holds the possibility of a great reward are significantly more likely to maintain a subscription so that they can continue to open treasure chests, even if the reward itself is very rare. This, in combination with predictable levels of reward based on accomplishments that require a long-term commitment have lead to a heated debate over the existence of video game addiction, and whether such methods are ethical.

Skinner and Society Today

Though Skinner died in 1990, his legacy lives on since he is considered one of the most influential psychologists of the 20th century. A part of that has to do with some of his unorthodox experiments like the one where he found pigeons behaving superstitiously. In an experiment, he suspected that pigeons were acting as though they influenced an automatic mechanism, which delivered food, by merely their rituals. He is still considered a significant figure for those studying psychology; people working in politics, business and marketing still look to his research work to gain success in their own fields. Despite his success, Skinner was not without his critics, three well-known ones being Anthony Burgess, Noam Chomsky, and J.E.R. Staddon. Burgess criticized Skinner for proposing what he considered to be amoral theories in his work; Chomsky argued that Skinner was unsuccessful in applying his laboratory research to humans, and Staddon criticized Skinner for believing that determinism (which many scholars argue is a logical product of operant conditioning) was opposed to traditional notions of reward and punishment.

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