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What is a Skinner Box?

Niki Acker
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Skinner box is a device invented around 1930 by behavioral scientist B. F. Skinner of Harvard University. The Skinner box is used in a laboratory setting to study classical conditioning and operant conditioning in animals. Skinner and other behaviorists object to the term "Skinner box" and more often call the device an operant conditioning chamber.

Behaviorism is a branch of psychology that has to do with learned behaviors. In classical conditioning, a conditioned stimulus is joined with an unconditioned stimulus, with the result that a natural unconditioned response becomes associated with the conditioned stimulus, thereby becoming a conditioned response. In the famous example of Pavlov's dog, the dog heard a bell ring just before each meal and eventually came to salivate at the sound of a bell rather than at the appearance of food.

In operant conditioning, the subject's behaviors are reinforced by desirable results, punished by undesirable results, or extinguished by having no result. Reinforced behaviors will occur more frequently, while punished and extinguished behaviors will be performed less often. An example of operant conditioning is a rat learning to navigate a maze more quickly and efficiently after a number of attempts.

A Skinner box, used to study these concepts, is a box that houses an animal and offers both unconditioned and conditioned stimuli — such as colored lights and food, respectively — and response levers or keys that serve to monitor the animal's behavior. For example, a Skinner box may be used to test classical conditioning in a bird by associating a red light with each feeding, eventually causing the bird to peck not only at food, but upon seeing the red light. Skinner boxes may be fairly simple, with only one lever or key, or they may be quite complex, with a variety of stimuli and ways of monitoring responses. The Skinner box has received criticism because it does not capture every nuance of the animal's behavior; pushing the lever with a nose or a paw registers as the same response, for example, and light touches of the lever may not be recorded.

B. F. Skinner has been accused of raising his daughter in a Skinner box, leading to her mental illness and suicide, but this is untrue. Skinner designed a special air-crib intended to make childcare easier, but he did not conduct psychological experiments on his daughter or abuse her. Deborah Skinner Buzan, Skinner's daughter, is still alive and has refuted every point of these rumors.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Niki Acker
By Niki Acker , Writer
"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide range of interesting and unusual topics to gather ideas for her own articles. A graduate of UCLA with a double major in Linguistics and Anthropology, Niki's diverse academic background and curiosity make her well-suited to create engaging content for WiseGeekreaders. "

Discussion Comments

By anon254589 — On Mar 13, 2012

Skinner basically believed that human behavior is only influenced externally and that we don't have inner lives, which is complete crap. BF Skinner, along with Bernais, are two of the biggest charlatans in the field of human psychology.

By jacksbaxy — On Jan 30, 2011

Did you know that Skinner-style classical conditioning does not require a box to be tested in everyday life? For example, there are a ton of children and adults alike that have had so many meals in front of the T.V. that they now think they have to eat when the T.V. is on, responding to that rather than actual hunger. It happens with babies and sleep also. Consider a baby that is put to sleep every night with a drive. I am not saying there is anything wrong with this, but if it is something that happens every bedtime, they will probably start to act sleepy whenever they get in the car, even if they are not actually sleepy.

By recapitulate — On Jan 28, 2011

The idea of BF Skinner raising his daughter in a skinner box is so utterly ridiculous I cannot even begin. That's like suggesting that Schroedinger really put nearly dead cats in boxes. I have never heard this myth before, but I suppose some people will look for scandal in anything, and psychology usually is a little low on drama, outside of results of behavioural studies.

Niki Acker

Niki Acker


"In addition to her role as a Language & Humanities editor, Niki Foster is passionate about educating herself on a wide...
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