The Skinner Box. Sounds terrifying right? Good name for a horror movie. Well, the Skinner Box is actually the name for a phenomenon that makes people do what you want (obviously… if you put me in something you called a ‘Skinner Box’, I’d probably do what you wanted too).
Let’s start at the beginning though. We’ve talked before about how when one thing predictably precedes another, we tend to associate the two things. It’s a kind of learning, and it’s the reason you salivate when I describe a juicy lemon or the reason you might think of your old school swimming carnivals when you smell chlorine.
Now, at the same time as that was first being discovered (by a guy who was spraying meat at dogs to harvest saliva; seriously, go read that article), Edward Thorndike was playing with cats. He was putting them in puzzle boxes and seeing how they got out. He noticed that at first the cat would struggle, and flail about. But as soon as it got the door open to get out, it would cease all other kinds of behaviour when put back into the puzzle box and do the action it last did to get out.
Thorndike elaborated on what he saw here by noting that when a behaviour is followed by a good outcome, it will happen more often; when a behaviour is followed by less good outcomes, it will happen less often. He called it the law of effect. This is what psychologists might refer to as the ABC of behaviour. Antecedent (what happens first), Behaviour (what we do in response), Consequence (what follows that either makes us want to behave that way or behave differently in response to the next antecedent).
The birth of reward and punishment
Enter Burrhus Frederic Skinner (commonly known as B.F. Skinner, because duh, look at his name). Skinner was all about Thorndike’s law of effect and decided to test the crap out of it. And thus came into being the Skinner Box. Skinner would put an animal in a box and have one action result in a reward or a punishment. For example, a pigeon could peck a certain spot and food would be delivered, or a rat could press a lever and it might get an electric shock.
From his studies, he was able (and we have since massively expanded upon) the concept of operant conditioning (literally, how acting/operating on the environment results in differences in behaviour). Or, as you might more commonly know it, the principles of reward and punishment.
The four kinds of reward and punishment
There are four words we need to know when it comes to operant conditioning, positive, negative, punishment and reinforcement (also known as reward). They go like this:
- positive – introducing something;
- negative – removing something;
- punishment – something that will decrease behaviour; and
- reinforcement – something that will increase behaviour.
And when you put them together, you end up with these four combinations;
- positive reinforcement – you’re introducing something good (like a chocolate), which is likely to increase behaviour;
- negative reinforcement – you’re removing something bad (like a fan reduces the heat), which is likely to increase behaviour (which in this example would be to turn the fan on when you’re uncomfortably hot);
- positive punishment – you’re introducing something bad (like a fine or an electric shock), which is likely to decrease behaviour (what most people are actually referring to when they think they’re talking about negative reinforcement); and
- negative punishment – you’re taking away something good (like window privileges in the car), which is likely to decrease behaviour (people don’t call out the window in my car).
Confused? Well, luckily I brought everyone’s favourite sociopath, Sheldon, along to help explain:
We will only learn if the connection between the operant (the reinforcement or the punishment) and the response is made very clear, in which case we would call the operant a discriminative stimulus. Otherwise, we won’t be able to tell what to do to repeat the experience. However, even if there is a clear connection, we will tend to generalise, and things that are similar to the discriminative stimulus will start to elicit the specific response too.
Finally, the more complicated the response desired (and the stupider the thing we’re trying to control) is, the more difficult it is to influence the behaviour. In these cases, we would use what’s called shaping, in which we encourage little successive approximations of the behaviour we’re trying to elicit until eventually they do the whole thing at once (like training a dog to sit, then stay, then roll over).
It really is like that (almost certainly misquoted) quote from Confucius:
Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated
Or perhaps, more accurately, people are really simple and we wish we were more complicated.
Don’t like how simple your brain can be? Learn how to boost it’s connectivity through the right kind of meditation (seriously, it’s science). Or learn the equally simple reason why all groups tend to get stale after a while (and how to avoid it). Giving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and ‘the good life’ at The Dirt Psychology.