Human development: Skinner

Revision cards outlining Skinner's learning theory in health and social care unit 12 (human development: factors & theorists), including the learning theory (operant conditioning, shaping and the various types of reinforcement), application to other areas of development (including attachment and language development) and an evaluation of the theory.

  • Created by: Emma
  • Created on: 04-01-12 20:19

Skinners learning theory

Skinner believed that behaviour and behaviour changes were a result of consequences from other behaviour.

Simply this means if a behaviour receives a reward, it is likely to be repeated, for example if a child is given a toy that sings if you poke it's arm, and a child happens to poke it's arm by chance, the song that happens as a result of this may be rewarding to the child. Therefore, they are likely to repeat this behaviour and poke the toy's arm more frequently.

Likewise, if a behaviour receives a negative response, the behaviour will be less likely to be repeated.

This is known as reinforcement

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The Skinner Box

Skinner conducted various experiments using small animals, such as rats and pigeons. Here is an example of an experiment Skinner conducted on pigeons:

The bird was placed in a special cage (called a skinner box) which contained a disc somewhere in the cage which, when pecked, released food pellets onto a tray. Whilst exploring the cage, the pigeon would have pecked the disc accidentally, with this resulting in the reward of food. This reward then reinforces the behaviour of pecking the disc.

Other experiments involved using different coloured discs, and allowing only discs in 1 colour to release food pellets. When the behaviour is reinforced and the order and positions of the discs altered, the pigeons still pecked the coloured disc that released food pellets.

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Operant condtioning and shaping

This is a training method by the systematic use of reinforcement. An example of this is a bird trainer trying to train a pigeon to peck a small ball into a goal.

Firstly, the trainer is likely to reward the pigeon each time he pecks the ball. Then when this behaviour is reinforced, he is likely to ignore all pecking behaviour except for when, for example, the pigeon manages to send the ball a distance of 10cm or more.

When this behaviour is reinforced, the trainer will become more specific, only rewarding pecks that send the ball a disctance of 10cm or more and in the direction of the goal. The trainer will gradually become more picky until eventually he only rewards the pecks that actually send the ball into the goal.

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Positive and negative reinforcement & punishment

Positive reinforcement: This is simply rewarding good behaviours, or desired behaviours, with a positive reward, such as food, praise or a treat.

Negative reinforcement: This is rewarding good behaviours with the escape of unpleasant stimulus. For example if an animal is in a skinner box, with a continuous blast of cold air, and pressing a lever turns off the cold air for 10 seconds, this behaviour will be reinforced.

Punishment: This refers to an unpleasant stimulus following poor or unwanted behaviour, for example when a child uses innappropriate language, their carer may punish them by sending them to their bedroom. As this behaviour received an unpleasant consequence, it is less likely to be repeated.

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Application to attachment

Skinner assumes that attachment behaviours develop because they are rewarding, for example maintaining proximity is rewarding, for example infants are usually held close to the caregiver when being breastfed, and so the infant then associates this closeness as a rewarding experience, and therefore seek proximity.

This can also be explained in terms of negative reinforcement: if an infant has a wet nappy, this is likely to cause them discomfort. Then when a caregiver picks them up, they usually have their nappy changed and the discomfort is removed, following close contact with a caregiver.

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Application to prosocial and antisocial behaviour

Prosocial behaviours develop simply because they are rewarded with praise when they do occur.

Antisocial behaviours develop in one of two possible ways: One of these being that the behaviours often demand respect from peers, which in turn is rewarding. For example a child who is aggressive may be respected by peers, or even encouraged by parents. Another theory is that the behaviours themselves provide a reward, for example if a child steals sweets, they are rewarded with sweets.

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The development of sex differences

Skinner would say that differences between boys and girls occur as a consequence of them being treated differently, even if this is not deliberately. For example, boys often recieve praise for acting brave or 'macho', and so show these qualities more than girls. Girls are often rewarded for caring behaviours, and so demonstrate more of these than boys.

Please note that these are stereotypes and there are always exceptions.

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Language development

Skinner suggested that language development is linked to operant conditioning. For example if a baby babbles, a parent is likely to reward this with praise, attention and cuddles. This then reinforces the behaviour and the baby will babble more. After a while, the parent is likely to get bored of the baby's babbling and therefore will pay less attention to it. This encourages the baby to vary their babbling more, until it produces a sound which may be mistaken for recognisable speech; which in turn encourages the parent to reward and praise the child; reinforcing this speech pattern. This continues until the child learns to produce recognisable speech and sentences.

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Evaluation; positive features of the theory

The theory is supported by a lot of evidence, much of this from emperical (numerical and scientific) studies, that rewarding behaviour shapes future behaviour. The theory is also plausible, and is easy to apply to many different behaviours.

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Evaluation; negative features of the theory

The theory ignores cognitions (thought processes) as it only studies behaviour. This in turn disregards many aspects of human learning; as humans also learn by acquiring knowledge and understanding concepts and situations; therefore making the theory incomplete.

The theory also only focusses on very few factors. It ignores many environmental factors and completely disregards genetic and biological factors, despite these being proven to have a link to attachment and language development.

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Asma Nagra


This is really is great thanks =P

Sam Morran


I like the writing style of this resource - it is easy to read through and a good resource.

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