Classical and operant conditioning as a way of understanding human learning.
Burrhus Frederic Skinner is not only one of the most important historical figures in psychology ; it is, in many respects, responsible for its asserting itself as a science.
His contributions to this field are not only methodological, but also philosophical, and his radical behaviorism, despite not being far from hegemonic today, allowed, among other things, that in the second half of the twentieth century a tool as useful as the Therapy Cognitive Behavioral very inspired by this researcher. Let’s see what were the main keys to BF Skinner’s theory.
A turn towards operant conditioning
When BF 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 much above, this first approach to behavioral psychology proposed modifying behavior by making pleasant or unpleasant stimuli that were presented at the same time as other stimuli to which the individual was wanted to develop aversion or liking. I say “individuals” and not “people” because simple conditioning was so rudimentary that it worked even with life forms with as simple a nervous system as reptiles or mollusks.
For example, in the famous experiments of Pavlov’s dogs, this physiologist made animals start to salivate when they heard a certain sound, since this had been associated with food in previous tests. 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 behavior could be explained only through this mechanism, not least because the conditions for it to occur rarely exist outside of a laboratory. However, he did believe that our behavior (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 BF Skinner’s theory was in another sense: instead of focusing on the way in which the stimuli are associated with each other, he focused on the way in which the actions that are carried out and the consequences of these actions. What happens to us because of something we have done is, in itself, a stimulus that we take note of. Thus, Skinner takes into account the perception-action-perception loop.
For Skinner, learning from the consequences of the way in which one interacts with the world was the main mechanism for modifying behavior. Both human beings and animals are always carrying out 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 to be the consequences of our actions is the foundation 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 that the mechanisms of operant 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. Members of our species have the ability to create abstract concepts and generate autobiographical memory, but for Skinner the appearance of these refined ways of thinking were the top of the pyramid of a process that began by learning from our successes and our mistakes in real time. .
In addition, the methodology that behavioral psychologists normally used was based on animal models (experimentation with rats, pigeons, etc.), which in a way is a limitation.
The black box and Skinner
Behaviorists 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 the outside what happens in people’s minds. However, the black box of Skinner’s theory was not the same as that of the early 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.
Of course, for BF 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 from performing the action to registering the stimuli that are (or appear to be) a consequence of these actions, although with the added difficulty that it is practically impossible to study objectively.
In fact, the very concept of “the mind” was misleading for Skinner: it leads us to think that there is something inside us that makes thoughts and action plans appear out of nowhere, as if our psychic life were disconnected from our environment. That is why in BF Skinner’s theory the object of study of psychology is behavior, and not the mind or the mind and behavior at the same time.
According to this behaviorist, everything that is usually called “mental process” was actually one more form of behavior, something that is set in motion to make the fit between our actions and the expected consequences is optimal.
The legacy of BF Skinner’s theory
The theoretical legacy of the father of radical behaviorism represented a total rejection of the speculative research methods typical of psychoanalysis and a research proposal outside of introspection and focused only on objective and easy-to-measure variables.
In addition, he indicated the risk of transforming highly abstract theoretical constructs (such as “mind” or “demotivation”) into causal elements that explain our behaviors. So to speak, for Skinner to say that someone has committed a crime because of his feeling of loneliness is like saying that a locomotive is moving because of movement.
Being so supported by operant conditioning, Skinner’s work claimed experimentation with animals as a useful source of knowledge, something that has been widely criticized both by psychologists of the cognitivist current and by various philosophers, according to whom there is a qualitative leap between the mental life of nonhuman animals and members of our species. However, animal models are still widely used in psychology to make approximations to types of behaviors present in our species.