Skinner Box | What is Operant Conditioning experiment?

Skinner Box | What is Operant Conditioning experiment?

Behavioural psychology is not only associated with human behaviour, as has been described in the Little Albert Experiment ( but also with animals. During my study in this area, I came across an experiment, known as the Skinner Box Experiment which dealt with the psychology of animals and how they respond when put under exceptional circumstances.

What is the Skinner Box Experiment?

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, an American psychologist and behaviourist created a sophisticated apparatus that allowed him to study animal behaviour, especially experimenting with pigeons and rats.

Burrhus carried out this experiment in the 20th century to show that animals could be conditioned. From the investigation, he was able to describe and draw conclusions about an interesting behavioural process known as Operant Conditioning.

Operant conditioning, otherwise known as instrumental conditioning is a form of learning that involves associating a stimulus with a response for the response to occur more or less. That is, a behaviour occurs, and after that, there is a response. It is a method of integrating reward, punishment and learning.

Skinner Box Explanation and Procedure

To carry out the scientific study of Operant conditioning, Skinner manufactured his well-known box (skinner box or operant conditioning chamber). Skinner put a pigeon in his box, which had enough space to browse in freely.

In the box, there was a small disc that, in case the bird pecked, it would get some food. The pigeon did not discover the disc the first time as it was only pecking the entire box randomly. It eventually discovered the disc and immediately obtained the reward. Learning that it received food, the bird started pecking the disc repeatedly.

To ensure that the pigeon pecked at the disc multiple times, Skinner kept the bird at three-quarters of their weight, and this kept it hungry. In this way, the pigeon wanted more food. A few minutes later, the bird adapted to the operation of the box, repeatedly pecking the disc and hoping to receive a reward each time it did so.

Throughout the experiment, Skinner recorded the total number of times the pigeon pecked the disc and he compared them in the graph. He went a bit further by ensuring that not all pecks were always rewarded because he wanted to see how changing the way the reward was obtained changed its behaviour.

Skinner Box Experiment with Rats

Skinner box

Burrhus enclosed a small animal (i.e. a rat) in a small box, usually special glasses that did not allow it to see outside, although the researcher was able to look in.

The box had a mechanism called a “manipulator” ( generally a lever), a reinforcer (food) and a discriminative stimulus that was light or sound that indicates the mechanism was working.

The experiment began with the rat activating the lever and obtaining food in return. After a while, the animals started associating the activation of the lever with obtaining food.

The interesting part is that as time passed the lever began to work only when the light appeared, or the sound was on. The rat somehow ended up noticing it, becoming again conditioned to understand that the mechanism now only worked with light or sound.

Skinner also performed an experiment that discussed negative reinforcement (a method that takes away something uncomfortable in response to a stimulus). He placed a rat the same way he did in his first experiment and subjected it to an uncomfortable electric current, instead of keeping it hungry.

Due to the discomfort from the electric current, the rat started moving desperately around the box and mistakenly hit the lever. The terrible current stopped instantly. After discovering that, the rat learned to go directly to the lever to prevent itself from the current.

Skinner Box Experiment Psychology

The theory behind Skinner Box experiment indicates that if an animal ends up performing these activities (such as pulling the lever when the rat sees the light or pecking the disc to get food) even though they are not natural activities in animals, they are indeed being conditioned to do so.

After his experiment, Skinner argued that learning in human and other animals (i.e. pigeons and rats) are almost the same. He further likens the result of his experiment to human behaviour, especially gambling addiction.

Also, the experiment suggests that behaviourism is more concerned with observable behaviours rather than thinking and emotion (internal events). Hence, human behaviour is greatly influenced by learning from the environment.

If you like this article, you may also like to read: How Classical Conditioning works?

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