Project Description

Skinner and Behaviorism

B.F. Skinner

Considered the father of Behaviorism, B.F. Skinner was the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard from 1959 to 1974.  He completed his PhD in psychology at Harvard in 1931.  He studied the phenomenon of operant conditioning in the eponymous Skinner Box, still used today.

Quite the opposite of a neuroscientific approach, Behaviorism does not look under the hood. In its time, the theory was revolutionary because it deployed an experimental approach to the study of psychology, in contrast with the prevailing psychoanalytic approach. Under Skinner’s leadership, Behaviorists subjected psychology to quantifiable and stringent measures and application of the scientific method.

Skinner was interested in how environmental experience and learning caused modification of certain behaviors. He developed the Operant Conditioning Pigeon Chamber and other devices to enable him to conduct controlled experiments. Stimuli were typically in the form of rewards (positive) or punishments (negative). The experiments revealed how behaviors could be increased with rewards or decreased with the application of punishments.

Operant conditioning pigeon chamber

Operant Conditioning Pigeon Chamber

This dual chamber was used to study the collaborative behavior of pigeons. B. F. Skinner invented this type of operant conditioning chamber when he was a graduate student at Harvard circa 1930, although his work with pigeons did not begin until WWII. The apparatus became known as a Skinner box.

Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (WJ1233)–ca 1950 (Image Skinner)


bf skinner lab

Behavior Insights from Today’s Researchers

Behavioral theories are is still applied today in Ethology, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and in treatments for addiction. Meanwhile, neuroscientists are looking inside the brain to understanding the mechanisms underlying learning and behavior.

Michael Crickmore is watching what motivation looks like in brain circuits.

In his lab, Benjamin DeBivort seeks answers to the question, “What underlies the behavioral differences between genetically identical individuals?”

In his lab, Florian Engert and colleagues investigate the circuitry underlying innate behaviors.

Edward Kravitz studies aggression in his lab, fondly referred to as the “Fruit Fly Fight Club”.

Bence Ölvezcky‘s primary interest is to observe what happens in the brain during the learning and perfecting of motor skills.