Essay about B.F. Skinner

1435 Words Oct 29th, 2000 6 Pages
B.F. Skinner

Psychologist, born in Susquhanna, Pa. He studied at Harvard, teaching there (1931-6, 1947-74). A leading behaviorist, he is a proponent of operant conditioning, and the inventor of the Skinner box for facilitating experimental observations.
B. F. Skinner's entire system is based on operant conditioning. The organism is in the process of "operating" on the environment, which in ordinary terms means it is bouncing around the world, doing what it does. During this "operating," the organism encounters a special kind of stimulus, called a reinforcing stimulus, or simply a reinforcer. This special stimulus has the effect of increasing the operant - which is the behavior occurring just before the reinforcer. This is operant
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Or "x" times. There is a fixed ratio between behaviors and reinforcers: 3 to 1, 5 to 1, 20 to 1, etc. This is a little like "piece rate" in the clothing manufacturing industry: You get paid so much for so many shirts.
Skinner also looked at variable schedules. Variable ratio means you change the "x" each time first it takes 3 tricks to get a treat, then 10, then 1, then 7 and so on. Variable interval means you keep changing the time period -- first 20 seconds, then 5, then 35, then 10 and so on.
In both cases, it keeps the dog on their little toes. With the variable interval schedule, they no longer "pace" themselves, because they no can no longer establish a "rhythm" between behavior and reward. Most importantly, these schedules are very resistant to extinction. It makes sense, if you think about it. If you haven't gotten a reinforcer for a while, well, it could just be that you are at a particularly "bad" ratio or interval.
A question Skinner had to deal with was how we get to more complex sorts of behaviors. He responded with the idea of shaping, or "the method of successive approximations." Basically, it involves first reinforcing a behavior only vaguely similar to the one desired. Once that is established, you look out for variations that come a little closer to what you want, and so on, until you have the animal performing a behavior that would never show up in ordinary life. Skinner and his students have been quite successful in teaching simple animals to