Conditioning Theory by B.F. Skinner

Brief Overview of the theory

According to Skinner, operant conditioning is a form of conditioning that that influences the formation of personality (Skinner, 1948, p.23). In other words, it is a learning method where people’s behavior is changed with the introduction of different incentives and reinforcements. External factors should be considered in explaining the behavior of persons. Skinner looked at any active action or behavior that is bound to bring consequences as operant.

Reinforcement is one of the key components of operant conditioning. It refers to any event or aspect that serves to strengthen or bring a high likelihood of a certain behavior (Skinner, 1948). Positive reinforcement can be described as a favorable outcome which is realized after a certain behavior.

For example, when a person is rewarded after good behavior, then such is considered as positive reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is the exact opposite of positive reinforcement where there is removal of an unfavorable outcome and this response is reached by means of a certain behavior.

Punishment is the other basic component of operant conditioning. This basically refers to presenting an outcome or event that is unfavorable which seeks to decrease a certain behavior (Skinner, 1948). Just like reinforcement, punishments are of two kinds and these are positive and negative punishment.

Positive punishment simply involves doing something to prevent continuance of a particular behavior. Negative punishment on the other hand refers to removal of something with an aim of decreasing the tendency to behave in a particular manner.

Critical Examination of the Theory: Strengths and Weaknesses

When discussing the operant conditioning theory, it is of great importance to ensure that a line is drawn between this theory and conditioning theory also known as classical condition developed by Ivan Pavlov. One aspect that makes operant condition different and unique from other theories is the fact that this theory does not rely on thoughts, intentions, attitudes, or beliefs of people to predict or explain certain behavior. Instead, this theory concentrates solely on external factors such as the environment (Iversen, 1992, p. 1326).

This is however not to say that Skinner does not recognize or appreciate the existence of these external conditions. In comparison with Pavlov’s model, Skinner’s findings demonstrate a significantly rapid conditioning of a reaction that has not been drawn from the reinforcer. In other words, Skinner’s method is much more advanced and superior because the response intensive increases further whereas Pavlov’s method does not allow to do that.

Many organizations have adopted this approach. They therefore look at external factors such as workplace environment to explain the behavior of employees at the workplace. For this reason, the management of an organization will always construe employees’ motivation as being a result of the good environment at the workplace.

Common behavior that is observed at the workplace tends to be more learned than reflexive and it becomes easy for the theory of operant condition to be made applicable. Employees tend to learn different behavior prior to joining the company and even after becoming part of the company. The stimuli that employees face upon joining a company can and does influence them to behave in a certain way.

Just as is the case with other kinds of studies, the theory of operant conditioning has been subject to criticism as well as support. In the studies by Iversen (1992), much research has been on a comparative analysis of Skinner’s theory with other related frameworks.

The findings reveal that Skinner’s conditioning theory has a great number of implications for further exploration. In particular, the experiments conducted by the scientists have proved that a single reinforcement is enough for forming an operant behavior. While tracking the discoveries, Iversen (1992) manages to define the connection between all aspects of Skinner’s empirical observations.

In addition, the author of the studies has highlighted that fact that Skinner’s findings are closely correlated with the analysis of behavior, specifically its formation through successive approximation. From Iversen’s (1992) point of view, “…by systematically implementing and refining the method of shaping by successive approximation, Skinner soon served as a great promulgator of this useful technique to generate new or complex behavior from existing behavior” (p. 1325).

In whole, the presented study is a useful guide to existing theories of personality development and assessment. It provides an exhaustive overview of the concepts and term applied by Skinner to study personality. Therefore, Skinner’s work can be seen as fundamental in the field of learning theory development. It is also a great contribution to the development of psychology disciplines.

Discussing Skinner’s studies from behavioral focus, Delprato and Midgley (1992) have managed to consider all important aspects of operant behavior, including the scientist’s approach to psychology. Specifically, his influence and attempt to fill in the existing theoretical gaps and provide a more comprehensive view on behaviorism and personal development are certainly commendable. In the article, the researcher presents their own positing pursuant to certain issues and assumptions introduced by Skinner.

First of all, Delprato and Midgley pay close attention to the scholar’s vision of scientific goals that did not recognize deductive methods, theory testing, and hypothetical assumptions. With particular reference to empirical data, Skinner introduced prediction and control as fundamental bases for defining the scientific relations. Second, while evaluating operant conditioning theory, one should notice an experimental nature of all evidence the scholar defined.

According to Delprato and Midgley (1992), “the key point of Skinner’s methodology is the connection among experimental functional analysis, functional relations, and what he meant by controlling variables” (p. 1509). As a result, experimental design implies the creation of cause-and-effect relations between the object, but Skinner deviates from a strict observance to the pragmatic aspect.

Third, the leading scholar in studying behaviorism believed that there are two ways of controlling behavior. The first involve inside impulses whereas the second examines the environment outside the organism (Delprato and Midgley, 1992, p. 1510). In other words, operant conditioning is premised on placing the focus of behavioral control in environmental events.

Finally, while examining the main positions of operant behavior, the scholar largely focuses on the behavior itself, but on the variables affecting it. With regard to this, presence and absence of specific stimulus are analyzed only when highlighting the changes occurred to behavioral patterns (Delprato and Midgley, 1992, p. 1516). In whole, a multi-facet analysis of Skinner’s positions and assumption has contributed to a more comprehensive view on the researcher’s discoveries.

Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning has come under serious criticism with mainly his procedures of experiment being questioned on the basis of validity. Other issues that have been raised regarding this theory are the assumptions that his theory has made especially concerning human nature. One of the causes of disagreement related to this theory involves the assumption that behavior is affected only by the external environment and never because of internal factors such as thoughts, beliefs, and attitudes.

While approaching individual behavior from a limited angle, one ignores other important factors which clearly affect the manner in which individuals behave (Feist and Feist, 2008, p.12). The opponents of this theory have gone further to prove that the internal factors such as attitudes, ideas, and beliefs contribute significantly to the kind of behavior patterns exposed.

The other issue that has been raised by those who are opposed to this theory is the fact that much as it is based on scientific researches, Skinner made a lot of assumptions with only a few of his conclusions based on observation. More importantly, the majority of his assumptions have been applied to other disciplines and scientific field for practical purposes.

Precisely, Blackman and Pellon (1993) explain the contributions, Skinner’s operant issue has made to the sphere of psychopharmacology. Theory application has demonstrated the influence of a medication on behavior that become more dependent on schedule. Hence, environmental characteristics of behavior as well as main feature of the medication determine the conditioning of psychological and physiological systems.

In addition, the reinforcing effect of drugs as well as their stimulus properties should also be taken into account while evaluating operant conditioning. In this respect, Skinner’s theory has greatly contributed to renouncing an assumption that drugs have exclusively pharmacological effect on the state of the organism. In whole, Skinner’s non-reductionist theoretical approaches to behavior has made a tribute to the development of such a interdisciplinary science as behavioral pharmacology.

Closing the discussion, there is yet another dilemma that has been raised regarding this theory. People do not always display certain behaviors as explained by this theory. Due to the fact that individuals realize that they will be rewarded for good behavior does not necessarily make them change their behavior.

However, operant conditioning theory does not exclude the possibility of removing stimulus for eliminating behaviors that are not encouraged in specific situations. In this respect, it is possible to argue that behavior can be shaped irrespective of dependent variables involved into this process.

Relationship between Operant conditioning and Personality Psychology

Personality psychology simply refers to study of human behavior. It involves an attempt to understand why someone has a certain kind of personality and what kind of personalities display certain behavior. Paying attention to the above discussion on operant condition theory developed by Skinner, it become apparent that this framework is closely related to the sphere of personality psychology.

Operant conditioning looks at ways in which behavior of persons can be influenced and controlled so that people can behave in a desirable manner (Skinner, 1948, p.23).

This theory looks at reward and punishment as the two main ways in which behavior can be influenced. According to this theory, personalities of people can be altered or influenced by either offering reward or failing to do so. This theory therefore looks at personality as an aspect that is more dependent than independent.

Skinner argues that the personality types are highly dependent on the external factors affecting a person such as the environment. In organization situation for instance, Skinner states that people who are hardworking will be those who are often commended for their hard work and great efforts and those who are rewarded often (Skinner, 1948). On the other hand, an employee who appears lazy at the work place is one whose efforts are hardly recognized.

While investigating the connection between operant conditioning, it should be stressed that instrumental conditioning is another form of conditioning that affects personality. This kind of behavior is seen is a more active because individuals are assessed while interacting with environment. As a result, behavior and personality is shaped while gaining new experienced from the external environment.

Skinner’s different types of reinforcement have allowed to control and manipulate behavior from the outside through the use of different stimulus. There is no doubt that personality formation and changes to behavior patterns are carried out through learning and practicing specific actions. From conceptual point of overview, personality change is carried out through systematic desensitization, aversion therapy, and counter-conditioning.

All the above-presented interventions are designed to elicit certain behaviors and impose new patterns. Judging from the above, Skinner’s theory of conditioning is a great contribute to the development of personality psychological because the scholars empirical observations and experimental designed have managed to introduced new concepts and approaches to learning and development.


Psychologists have attempted to explain the reason behind certain behavior by human beings. Various theories, hypotheses and models have been developed all aimed at coming up with valid explanation regarding the same. One of the most popular theories that explain human behavior is the theory that was developed by B.F. Skinner who looks at behavior of people as traits that are shaped and influenced by what is happening around them.

Having laid his claims, Skinner then went ahead to carry out experiments and give illustrations and examples to prove the validity of his claims. Looking through the presented studies dedicated to the analysis of operant conditioning theory, it should be stressed that Skinner has made a significant contribution to the development of new disciplines and has triggered a great number of researches related to the analysis of personality psychology.

In this respect, there is no doubt that the relation between personality psychology and Skinner’s introduced framework is evidence because the experiments he presented were applicable to explaining some of the behavioral patterns of individuals.

System of reinforcement and behavior formation has also been carefully considered by other scholars to define the necessity of introducing new learning theory. In addition, Skinner’s theory of operant behavior has given a basis for further discussions in such areas as pharmacology where much research has been done on the defining the connection between drugs taking and behavior transformation.

Therefore, in light of the above discussion, in order to understand personality properly, one will need to look at different approaches carefully. A narrow way of explaining behavior of people may end up giving biased results because the factors that affect the manner in which people behave are multiple and multifaceted.

Skinner’s approach to understanding behavior and personally is well grounded and empirically justified. His focus on experimental design and empirical researched proved to be a valuable addition to studying psychology of personality.


Blackman, D. E., & Pellon, R. R. (1993). The contributions of B.F. Skinner to the interdisciplinary science of behavioural pharmacology. British Journal of Psychology, 84(1), 1-39. Print.

Delprato, D. J., & Midgley, B. D. (1992). Some fundamentals of B. F. Skinner’s behaviorism. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1507-1520. Print.

Feist, J, & Feist, G. (2008). Theories of personality. 7th ed. London: McGraw Hill Higher Education. Print.

Iversen, I. H. (1992). Skinner’s early research: From reflexology to operant conditioning. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1318-1328. Print.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition’ in the Pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 121(3), 273-274. Print.