Bf Skinner’s Theory Of Reinforcement

This theory is still valid today when it comes to explaining learning processes.


It seems obvious to think that, if after performing a certain behavior we receive an award or reward, it is much more likely that we will repeat it again. Behind this principle, which may seem so obvious to us, are a whole series of hypotheses and theories studied and debated throughout the history of psychology.

One of the main defenders of this approach was Burrhus Frederic Skinner, who through his Reinforcement Theory tried to give an explanation to the functioning of human behavior in response to certain stimuli.

Who was BF Skinner?

Psychologist, philosopher, inventor and author. These are just some of the occupations attributed to the well-known psychologist, of American origin, Burrhus Frederic Skinner. He is considered one of the main authors and researchers within the behaviorist current of North America.

One of his main objects of study was human behavior. Specifically, it sought to explain how it worked in response to different stimuli that can influence it.

Through the experimental manipulation and observation of animal behavior, Skinner outlined his first theories about the role that reinforcement has in behavior, creating from these the principles of the theory of operant conditioning.

For Skinner, the use of so-called positive and negative reinforcements was vital to modify both human and animal behavior; either to increase or enhance certain behaviors or to inhibit or eliminate them.

Likewise, Skinner was interested in the practical applications of his theories; creating “programmed education”. In this type of educational process, students are explained a series of small nuclei of information that they must learn consecutively in order to move on to the next nucleus of information.

Finally, Skinner also gave rise to a series of essays surrounded by a certain controversy in which he proposed the use of psychological behavior modification techniques with the aim of increasing the quality of society and thus reinforcing people’s happiness, as a kind of social engineering for the happiness and well-being of men and women.

What is the theory of reinforcement?

The reinforcement theory developed by Skinner, also known as operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning, attempts to explain human behavior in correspondence with the environment or the stimuli that surround it.

Using the experimental method, Skinner comes to the conclusion that the appearance of a stimulus triggers a response in the person. If this response is conditioned using positive or negative reinforcers, an influence can be exerted on said operant reaction or behavior, which can be enhanced or inhibited.

Skinner established that behavior is maintained from one context or situation to another as long as the consequences, that is, the reinforcers do not change or do so following certain logics, “rules” that must be discovered. As a consequence, both human and animal behavior can be conditioned or modified using a series of stimuli that the subject may consider satisfactory or not.

More simply explained, Reinforcement Theory emphasizes that a person is more likely to repeat behavior that is positively reinforced, as well as being more likely to repeat behaviors that are associated with negative stimuli or reinforcement.

What types of reinforcement are there?

Conditional or reinforcing stimuli, both positive and negative, can be used in order to rectify or change the behavior of the person. These are very useful both in psychological therapy, and in the school, family or even work environment.

Skinner differentiated between two types of reinforcers: positive reinforcers and negative reinforcers.

1. Positive reinforcers

Positive reinforcers are all those consequences that appear after a behavior and that the person considers satisfactory or beneficial. Through these positive or satisfactory reinforcers, the aim is to increase a person’s response rate, that is, to increase the probability of performing or repeating an action.

This means that acts that are positively reinforced are more likely to be repeated since they are followed by gratifications, rewards or rewards perceived as positive by the person performing the action.

It is very important to note that for this association to be effective, it must be ensured that the person considers positive reinforcement as such. That is to say, that it is really attractive.

What one person may consider as a prize does not have to be for another. For example, a child who is hardly given candy may perceive it as a more important reward than one who is used to it. Therefore, it will be necessary to know the particularities and differences of the person in order to specify which will be the ideal stimulus that will serve as a positive reinforcer.

In turn, these positive reinforcers can be classified into the following categories:

  • Primary or intrinsic reinforcers : these are behaviors that by themselves generate satisfaction. For example eat if you are hungry.
  • Secondary reinforcers : they are given through learning and are external to the person. They can be material, like money or social, like recognition.

3. Negative reinforcers

Contrary to popular belief, negative reinforcers do not consist of administering punishments or aversive stimuli to the person; If not the opposite. The use of negative reinforcers seeks to increase the response rate of this by eliminating those consequences that it considers negative.

For example, a child who studies for a certain test and gets a good grade. In this case, the parents exempt him from doing any household chores or any activity that is unpleasant for him.

As we can see, unlike positive reinforcement, in this case the appearance of a negative or aversive stimulus is eliminated to increase a certain behavior. However, what they do have in common is that the stimuli will also have to be adapted to the tastes of the person.

Skinner’s reinforcement programs

As discussed at the beginning of the article, in addition to theorizing about human behavior, Skinner sought to bring these theories to real practice. To do this, he developed a series of specific reinforcement programs, the most prominent being the continuous reinforcement and intermittent reinforcement programs (interval reinforcement and reason reinforcement).

1. Continuous reinforcement

In continuous reinforcement, the person is constantly rewarded for an action or behavior. The main advantage is that the association is quick and effective; however, once the reinforcement is removed, the behavior also quickly dies out.

2. Intermittent reinforcement

In these cases , the person’s behavior is only reinforced on certain occasions. This program in turn is subdivided into two categories: interval reinforcement (fixed or variable) or reason reinforcement (fixed or variable)

In interval reinforcement the behavior is reinforced after a previously established period of time (fixed) or a random period of time (variable). Whereas in reason reinforcement the person has to carry out a certain number of behaviors before it is reinforced. As in the interval reinforcement, this number of responses can be previously agreed (fixed) or not (random).

Criticisms of Skinner’s theory

Like all areas of study and research, Skinner’s theory is not without its critics. The main detractors of these hypotheses accuse Skinner of not taking into account the circumstances around which the behavior occurs, thus creating an overly reductionist theory by relying on the experimental method. However, this criticism is replicated by calling attention to the fact that in the experimental method it is about putting the focus of attention not precisely on the individual, but on the context, what happens in the environment.

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