Skinner and Operant Conditioning

The work of B. F. Skinner on the principles of reinforcement and operant conditioning further developed the school of behaviorism. Skinner is the best-known and most controversial figure in the field of behaviorism (Craighead et al., 1995). Despite the fact that until his death in 1991, Skinner maintained an adamant denial of the importance of cognitions and affect in understanding human behavior, his work has been tremendously influential in the field of counseling and psychotherapy. Skinner developed applied behavioral analysis, which is based on operant conditioning. In operant conditioning, reinforcers shape behavior by being contingent on the response. Skinner's (1969) schedules of reinforcement define how different amounts of reinforcement can be delivered to continue to support behavioral changes. Key interventions in applied behavior analysis include reinforcement, punishment, extinction, and stimulus control, each of which involves a search for environmental variables that will lead to changes in behavior.

In operant conditioning, reinforcement is used to increase behavior. Examples of positive reinforcement include praise or money. Negative reinforcement, which also increases behavior, involves the removal of a negative stimulus, such as electric shock or a ringing bell. An example of negative reinforcement is turning off a loud bell after a rat presses a bar. Punishment and extinction decrease behavior by the addition of an aversive stimulus or the removal of a positive reinforcer, respectively. An example of punishment involves following cigarette smoking with electric shock. In extinction, a behavior to be decreased is ignored; a person who has the habit of interrupting conversation is ignored by friends when he or she interrupts, but friends listen when the comment is made in conversation without interrupting.

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