Merry Earth Day!  I really hope everyone takes some time today to ponder protecting the planet.  Better yet, just go recycle something or plant a tree…or both!  And now…for something completely different.

In my first posting ever on Philosophy Matters, I discussed the interrelatedness of psychology and philosophy, and I mentioned some major schools of thought.  Today, I want to delve a bit deeper into behaviorism and some of the works of B. F. Skinner.  Behaviorism is known as the second major force in psychology due to its scope of influence (Jones-Smith, 2012).  Unlike many other forms of psychology, pure behaviorism is not really concerned with the inner workings of the mind or any sort of intrapsychic forces.  Instead, behaviorists focus only on what is observable…behaviors themselves.  Thus, from a philosophical viewpoint, behaviorists are adhering to John Locke’s school of thought known as realism (Ozmon & Craver, 2008).  For a quick review, realists think that the only reality is that which is separate from the mind; knowledge can be found by scientific research.

Anyone who has ever taken an introductory psychology class can probably remember the name of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov.  He is a figure synonymous with classical conditioning in psychology, and this idea set the stage for expanding behaviorists like B. F. Skinner.

Pavlov observed that dogs began to salivate when the assistants who fed them entered the room and later when a whistle was blown after it being used at the same time they were fed.  Dogs will naturally salivate at the sight of food (an unconditioned response to an unconditioned stimulus), but the canines certainly didn’t plan on devouring the lab technicians.  The assistants and the whistle thus were originally a neutral stimulus, but when paired with food developed into a conditioned stimulus to a conditioned response (i.e., salivating sans food).

B. F. Skinner took on a slightly more radical view of behaviorism and created the operant conditioning modality.  For a detailed description, I encourage readers to read Skinner’s (2009) A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior available at  Skinner essentially believed that behavior can be conditioned by either rewarding or punishing people or animals after a behavior.  He used the term reinforcer to indicate anything that increases a target behavior; it can be either positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement depending on whether a stimulus is added or eliminated.  Reinforcement is different than punishment, which is anything that decreases a target behavior.  Likewise, there can be both positive and negative types of punishment depending on what is done to a particular stimulus.  Skinner also wrote a very important book called Beyond Freedom and Dignity in which he made the assertion that we are all just really slaves to our environment, but we can manipulate our surroundings.  Therefore, we are all slaves of our own creation, so true freedom doesn’t really exist.

Now, it’s time for some moving pictures.  First up, we have an animation depicting the differences between classical and operant conditioning:

As you may have gathered, the basic principles I have outlined have been adapted to shape ever increasingly complex behavior.  For example, one can use simple rewards and punishment to train rats to play basketball:

That’s all for now, so stay psyched up until next time!


Jones-Smith, E. (2012). Theories of counseling and psychotherapy: An integrative approach. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Ozmon, H. A., & Craver, S. M. (2008). Philosophical foundations of education (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

Skinner, B. F. (2011). A brief survey of operant behavior. Retrieved from

You may also like: