15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

Sssspectacular: Tree Snakes in Australia Can Actually Jump

sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images
sirichai_raksue/iStock via Getty Images

Ophidiophobia, or fear of snakes, is common among humans. We avoid snakes in the wild, have nightmares about snakes at night, and recoil at snakes on television. We might even be born with the aversion. When researchers showed babies photos of snakes and spiders, their tiny pupils dilated, indicating an arousal response to these ancestral threats.

If you really want to scare a baby, show them footage of an Australian tree snake. Thanks to researchers at Virginia Tech, we now know these non-venomous snakes of the genus Dendrelaphis can become airborne, propelling themselves around treetops like sentient Silly String.

That’s Dendrelaphis pictus, which was caught zipping through the air in 2010. After looking at footage previously filmed by her advisor Jake Socha, Virginia Tech Ph.D. candidate Michelle Graham headed for Australia and built a kind of American Ninja Warrior course for snakes out of PVC piping and tree branches. Graham observed that the snakes tend to spot their landing target, then spring upward. The momentum gets them across gaps that would otherwise not be practical to cross.

Graham next plans to investigate why snakes feel compelled to jump. They might feel a need to escape, or continue moving, or do it because they can. Two scientific papers due in 2020 could provide answers.

Dendrelaphis isn’t the only kind of snake with propulsive capabilities. The Chrysopelea genus includes five species found in Southeast Asia and China, among other places, that can glide through the air.

[h/t National Geographic]

9 Facts About Narcolepsy

Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images
Korrawin/iStock via Getty Images

Everyone experiences occasional daytime sleepiness, but just a small fraction of the population knows what it’s like to have narcolepsy. The disorder is defined by persistent drowsiness throughout the day, and in some cases, sleep paralysis, hallucinations, and the sudden loss of muscle control known as cataplexy. Having narcolepsy can make doing everyday activities difficult or dangerous for patients, but unlike some chronic conditions, it’s also easy to diagnose and treat. Here are some facts you should know about the condition.

1. There are two types of narcolepsy.

If everything you know about narcolepsy comes from movies and TV, you may think of it as the disease that causes people to go limp without warning. Sudden loss of muscle control is called cataplexy, and it’s the defining symptom of type 1 narcolepsy. Type 2 narcolepsy, on the other hand, is mainly characterized by fatigue. Losing motor function while awake isn’t a problem for those with type 2.

2. Type 1 narcolepsy stems from a chemical deficiency.

Almost every patient with type 1 narcolepsy has low levels of hypocretin. Hypocretin is a neurochemical that regulates the wake-sleep cycle. When there isn’t enough of this chemical in the brain, people have trouble staying conscious and alert throughout the day. Most people with the second, less severe type of narcolepsy have normal hypocretin levels, with about a third of them producing low or undetectable amounts. Type 2 narcoplepsy has been studied far less than type 1 of the disorder, and scientists are still figuring out what causes it.

3. The exact causes of narcolepsy aren’t always clear.

So why do some people’s brains produce less hypocretin than others? That part has been hard for scientists to figure out. One possible explanation is that certain autoimmune disorders cause the body to attack the healthy brain cells that make this chemical. This disorder can be the result of genetic and environmental factors. Although people with narcolepsy rarely pass it down to their offspring (this happens less than 1 percent of the time), the sleep condition does occasionally crop up in family clusters, suggesting there is sometimes a genetic component at play. Head trauma that impacts the area of the brain responsible for governing sleep can also lead to narcolepsy in rare cases.

4. There are tests to diagnose narcolepsy.

If patients believe they might have narcolepsy, their doctors might ask them to detail their sleep history and keep a record of their sleep habits. There are also a few tests potential narcoleptics can take to determine if they have the condition. During a polysomnography test, patients spend the night at a medical facility with electrodes attached to their heads to monitor their breathing, eye movement, and brain activity. A multiple sleep latency test is similar, except it gauges how long it takes patients to fall asleep during the day.

5. Strong emotions can trigger cataplexy.

Cataplectic spells can sometimes be predicted by triggers. In some patients, feeling strong emotions—whether they’re crying, laughing, angry, or stressed—is all it takes for them to lose muscle control. These triggers vary from patient to patient, and they can even affect the same person randomly. Some people deal with them by avoiding certain situations and closing themselves off emotionally, which can disrupt their social lives.

6. Narcolepsy can make sleep terrifying.

Narcoleptics don’t just worry about their disorder during their waking hours. When they’re trying to fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, narcolepsy can complicate things. One symptom is experiencing vivid, dream-like hallucinations while transitioning in or out of consciousness. These visions are often scary and may involve an intruder in the room with the sleeper. If they happen as the patient falls asleep, the hallucinations are called hypnagogic, and if they occur as they wake up, they’re hypnopompic.

A related symptom is sleep paralysis. This happens when a person’s brain cuts off muscle control of their body before they’re fully asleep or as they’re waking up. This combined with hypnagogic or hypnopompic nightmares can cause frightening experiences that are sometimes confused for real encounters.

7. Narcoleptics sometimes do activities half-asleep.

To outside observers, narcolepsy is sometimes hard to spot. A narcoleptic patient overcome by sleepiness won’t necessarily pass out in the middle of what they’re doing. Some act out “automatic behavior,” which means they continue with their actions—whether that’s walking, driving, or typing—with limited consciousness. This can cause poor performance at work or school, and in worst case scenarios, accidents while driving a car or operating machinery.

8. Harriet Tubman may have had narcolepsy.

One of the most famous likely narcoleptics in history is Harriet Tubman. The African American abolitionist was known to suffer from what were probably sudden narcoleptic episodes. The condition may have stemmed from the severe head trauma she sustained when a slave master threw an iron at another slave and hit her instead. The injury left her with permanent brain damage: In addition to narcolepsy, she also experienced chronic seizures and migraines throughout her life.

9. Medications and lifestyle changes are common narcolepsy treatments.

Though there’s no way to cure narcolepsy completely, there are many treatment options available. Taking medication is one of the most common ways to manage the disorder. Stimulants such as modafinil and armodafinil can be used to combat mild sleepiness, while amphetamines are often prescribed for more severe forms of fatigue. For hallucinations and sleep paralysis, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors—drugs that suppress REM sleep—can help.

As an alternative or supplementary treatment to medications, doctors may recommend lifestyle changes. Sticking to a sleep schedule, exercising regularly, avoiding nicotine and alcohol, and taking naps during the day can all reduce the symptoms of narcolepsy.

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