Skinner's behavioural theory

silhouette of a crowd image by Christopher Hall from

B.F. Skinner is a famed psychologist associated with behaviorism. In general, behaviorism is the idea that human beings respond predictably to stimuli, and those who control those stimuli control the person. There is no free will as commonly conceived, only responses to perceived pleasures and pains.

The basic idea, therefore, is that if you want to treat irrational behaviours, you must make certain that the irrational behaviour is punished and the rational (opposing and opposite) behaviour rewarded. Over time, the irrational behaviour will disappear, because it eventually conditions the agent to realise that such behaviours lead to pain.


In general, the system developed by Skinner rests on the assumption that any behaviour that is positively reinforced, or rewarded, will repeat itself, especially over time. Second, this repetition, over time, will lead to the desired behaviour becoming a habit. Also, the conditioning in one area will "bleed" over into other, related areas, assisting the patient in other areas of his life.

Theoretical Structure

Any organism is a complex object that is a product of its environment. What this means in real terms is that an object's behaviour over time can be predicted on the basis of its previous experiences. Things that have provided it pleasure will be pursued; things that provide it pain will be avoided. Hence, behaviorism of Skinner's type takes the utilitarian calculus as its centre.


For students in a classroom, for example, positive behaviour is encouraged through the promise of rewards. Bad behaviour is responded to with negative consequences. Over time, if these incentives are applied regularly and without excessive modification, the classroom will operate as a smooth organism. Of course, any organisation can be treated in this fashion. Because all organisms function according to the pleasure/pain nexus, the only real requirement is that the incentives be applied regularly and predictably.

Social Approach

The social vision of Skinner was based on the idea that an entire connected system of desires and aversions can be artificially induced by the "enlightened" public authority, that is, the state. Even more, the interests, motivations and drives of specific individuals (or even groups) could be understood if a full history of that person's experiences could be ascertained. In other words, if a person had a history of parental neglect, this would explain the patient's interest in community or a cynicism toward the family. The mental make-up of a person, according to Skinner's theory, could be understood (and behaviours predicted) through the history of what has been provided or deprived from that person's life with sufficient frequency to create a habitual attitude.


The criticisms of Skinner's approach have been legion. One critic, Alfie Kohn, rejected Skinner's ideas because he believed they treat human beings as if they were animals in a lab. In fact, according to such critics as Kohn, most of Skinner's experiments were done with lab animals, not with human beings. In addition, critics have rejected the use of Skinner's approach in the classroom, holding that the learning process cannot be facilitated within a schedule of rewards and punishments but is a part of the human make-up that should be followed freely, not by coercion. Moreover, many critics have held that the social application of Skinner's theory would lead to absolute totalitarianism, where every thought and act of the citizen would be the subject of scientific regulation. In other words, society would become a university-based, behaviourist and scientific oligarchy.