Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not only one of the most important historical figures in psychology ; he is, in many ways, responsible for its affirmation as a science.

His contributions to this field are not only methodological, but also philosophical, and his radical behaviourism, despite not being by far the most hegemonic at present, allowed, among other things, that in the second half of the 20th century a tool as useful as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy was being perfected, very much inspired by this researcher. Let’s see what were the main keys to B. F. Skinner’s theory.

A turn towards operant conditioning

When B. F. Skinner began his studies, behaviorism was basically based on simple conditioning inherited from the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov and popularized by John B. Watson.

Explained above, this first approach to behavioral psychology proposed to modify behavior by making pleasant or unpleasant stimuli present at the same time as other stimuli to which the individual was intended to develop aversion or liking. I say “individuals” and not “people” because simple conditioning was so rudimentary that it worked even with forms of life with a nervous system as simple as that of reptiles or molluscs.

For example, in Pavlov’s famous dog experiments, this physiologist made the animals start salivating when they heard a certain sound , as this had been associated with food in previous trials. The key to simple conditioning was to associate stimuli with each other.

Skinner admitted that simple conditioning could be useful in certain cases, but ruled out the possibility that the behavior could be explained only through this mechanism, among other things because the conditions for it to occur rarely occur outside a laboratory. However, he did believe that our behaviour (and that of many other forms of life) can be understood as a process of adaptation to pleasant and unpleasant experiences , useful and not useful.

The change brought about by B. F. Skinner’s theory was in another direction: instead of focusing on the way in which the stimuli are associated with each other, it focused on the way in which the actions that are carried out and the consequences of these actions are associated. What happens to us because of something we have done is, in itself, a stimulus of which we take note. Thus, Skinner takes into account the perception-action-perception loop.

Operant conditioning

For Skinner, learning from the consequences of how one interacts with the world was the main mechanism for modifying behavior. Both humans and animals are always doing 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 basis of operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, which according to Skinner was the basic form of learning in a large part of life forms .

But the fact that the mechanisms of operating conditioning were basically the same in many types of organisms does not mean that the contents on which they are produced would be the same regardless of whether we are a mouse or a human being. The members of our species have the capacity to create abstract concepts and generate autobiographical memory, but for Skinner the appearance of these refined forms of thought were the tip of the pyramid of a process that began by learning from our successes and errors in real time.

In addition, the methodology normally used by behavioural psychologists was based on animal models (experimentation on rats, pigeons, etc.), which is in a way a limitation.

The Black Box and Skinner

Behavioralists have always been well known for their conceptualization of mental processes as phenomena that occur within a “black box”, a metaphor that serves to indicate the impossibility of observing from outside what is happening in people’s minds. However, the black box of Skinner’s theory was not the same as that of the first behaviorists . While psychologists like John B. Watson denied the existence of a mental world, Skinner did believe that the study of mental processes could be useful in psychology.

That is, for B. F. Skinner, in practice it was not necessary to do that, and it was enough 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 consider our mind to be anything more than a part of the journey that goes from the performance of the action to the recording of the stimuli that are (or appear to be) the consequence of these actions, although with the added difficulty that it is practically impossible to study in an objective way.

In fact, the very concept of “the mind” was misleading to Skinner: it leads one to think that there is something inside us that makes thoughts and plans of action appear out of nowhere, as if our psychic life were disconnected from our environment. That is why in B. F. Skinner’s theory the object of study of psychology is behaviour, and not the mind or the mind and the behaviour at the same time .

According to this behaviorist, everything that is usually called “mental process” was actually just another form of behavior, something that is set in motion to make the adjustment between our actions and the expected consequences optimal.

The Legacy of B. F. Skinner’s Theory

The theoretical legacy of the father of radical behaviorism meant a total rejection of the speculative research methods typical of psychoanalysis and a research proposal outside of introspection and focused only on objective variables that are easy to measure.

Furthermore, he indicated the risk of transforming very abstract theoretical constructs (such as “mind” or “demotivation”) into causal elements that explain our behaviors. In a manner of speaking, for Skinner to say that someone has committed a crime because of his feeling of loneliness is like saying that a locomotive is moving forward because of movement.

Since it is so much based on operant conditioning, Skinner’s work claimed that experimentation on animals was a useful source of knowledge, something that has been highly criticized both by psychologists of the cognitive current and by several philosophers, according to whom there is a qualitative leap between the mental life of non-human animals and the members of our species. However, animal models are still widely used in psychology to make approximations to types of behaviour present in our species.