Skinner in the 21st century

Kaicie Boeglin

Opinions Editor

Photo via the Simple Dollar

The internet has become the 21st century Skinner box, and humans have opted and elected to be the lab rats. Burrhus Frederic Skinner was best known for his theory on operant learning, an associative learning process in which one's behaviors are modified by positive reinforcement or consequential punishment. Operant behavior is a response not associated with any known stimuli. Skinner aims to explain behavior through factual and descriptive terms. He used rats and pigeons to demonstrate and evaluate his theory. He developed a conditioning chamber known as the Skinner box, that contained a lever the animal would press in order to obtain reinforcement in the form of food. Skinner then introduced schedules of reinforcement or rates at which the animal would get the reinforcement. The schedules followed continuous patterns, fixed ratio patterns, interval schedules and variable schedules.


Skinner defined shaping to be the way the outside environment shapes one's more complex behaviors. Behavior will be reinforced only as it comes to approximate or approach the final desired behavioral outcome. Aversive stimuli is consequential punishment that leads to a decreased chance of an undesired behavior recurring. Skinner's theory and evaluation of behaviors with aversive stimuli is still prevalent as it depicts the frequency of behaviors, the situation it occurs in, and the associated reinforcements or punishments. Skinner's approach continues to be applied in laboratory, clinical and organizational settings. Behavior modification (B-mod) is biofeedback paired with positive and negative reinforcement that show long-term behavioral changes. Biofeedback is used to refer to the methods and procedures used to increase control of one's psychological response. Examples of this are shown in soldier condition training regardless of branch, and in psychosis treatments for anxiety and depression. Biofeedback helps lower percentages of one's cognitive dissonance.


In 1948 Skinner published a utopian novel named Walden II which at the time was considered science fiction, but is modernly confirmed by the psychological theory of behavioral analysis. The ideas Skinner developed with rats he then applied to humans to exemplify how easy human behaviors can be modified. This fictional account of a behaviorist utopia depicted a decentralized, localized society that implies social problems are solved by advanced behavioral expertise. In a practical scientific approach Skinner argued behavioral psych was not derived from unobservable states such as desires or beliefs.


Walden II is a widely talked of and critiqued modern work due to the proposition that all organisms, especially humans, have their behaviors manipulated by environmental variables rather than anything else. For example a green room has become the pre-post show area for talent acts because green relieves stress and provides inspiration. Hospitals have begun utilizing blue rooms with artificial blue light to relax, soothe and calm patients. Blue is found to enhance focus and productivity within the mind and medical treatment. Geographical locations also define one's wealth and wisdom thus promoting an incline of opportunity or a cataclysm of outbursts. Environmental variables are more than color and location, as they also include community and technology. In today's world the variables of community compared with technology determine the way individuals think and behave. Walden II is gaining popularity through this notion.


The Skinner Box has been transformed by the digital age to include apps and data, as well as streaming and judgement. If it wasn't posted about, did it even happen? If it doesn't have a hashtag, is it worth talking about? Skinner's theory of operant conditioning can be applied to humans through the way we treat technology. To feel important and attract positive reinforcement individuals have conformed to the everyday behaviors of liking, hearting, commenting and sharing across various social media. Hiding behind the screen has conditioned humans to live a robotic lifestyle full of judgement, with high chances of consequence.


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