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From Pavlov to Skinner Box
For the Advanced Science Hobbyist: Repeat Skinner's Box Experiment

Famous Inventors

  • AmpŤre Andrť-Marie
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  • Pavlovís Dogs

    Pavlov's Dog Experiment Cartoon
    Pavlov's Dog Experiment Cartoon
    During the 1890s, Ivan Pavlov, A Russian psychologist, studied the secretory activity of digestion.

    In a now classic experiment, Pavlov first performed a minor operation on a dog to relocate its salivary duct to the outside of its cheek, so that drops of saliva could be more easily measured. The dog, which was food deprived, was then harnessed in an apparatus to keep it steady in order to collect saliva.

    Periodically, a bell was rang, followed shortly thereafter by meat being placed in the hungry dog's mouth. Normally, meat causes a hungry dog to salivate, whereas rings have little effect. The dog's salivation to meat is an unconditioned reflex - it is in-born, in that dogs do not have to learn to salivate when food is placed in their mouths. Initially, the dog shows little responsiveness to the bell rings. Over time, however, the dog comes to salivate at the sounding of the bell rings alone. When this occurs, Pavlovian conditioning or classical conditioning has occurred, in that a new, or conditioned, reflex has developed. This confirmed Pavlov theory that the dog had associated the bell ringing with the food.

    In 1904 Pavlov was awarded the Nobel Prize for physiology for his work on digestive secretion.

    Regretfully, we do not advise students to undertake this Pavlovís seminal experiment since it involves some surgical abilities, out the limits of high school studentsí expertise, and more important, we think that hurting innocent animals is not ethical, at least not for the purpose of a science fair project.

    Skinner Box

    Frederic Skinner's work was influenced by Pavlovís experiments and the ideas of John Watson, father of behaviorism. He especially was interested in stimulus-response reactions of humans to various situations, and experimented with pigeons and rats to develop his theories. He took the notion of conditioned reflexes developed by Ivan Pavlov and applied it to the study of behavior.

    One of his best known inventions is the Skinner box (operant conditioning chamber). It contains one or more levers which an animal can press, one or more stimulus lights and one or more places in which reinforcers like food can be delivered.

    In one of Skinnersí experiments a starved rat was introduced into the box. When the lever was pressed by the rat a small pellet of food was dropped onto a tray. The rat soon learned that when he pressed the lever he would receive some food. In this experiment the lever pressing behavior is reinforced by food.

    If pressing the lever is reinforced (the rat gets food) when a light is on but not when it is off, responses (pressing the lever) continue to be made in the light but seldom, if at all, in the dark. The rat has formed discrimination between light and dark. When one turns on the light, a response occurs, but that is not a Pavlovian conditioned reflex response.

    In this experiment Skinner demonstrated the ideas of "operant conditioning" and "shaping behavior." Unlike Pavlov's "classical conditioning," where an existing behavior (salivating for food) is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus (ringing of a bell or a metronome), operant conditioning is the rewarding of an act that approaches a new desired behavior.

    Skinner applied his findings about animals to human behavior and even developed teaching machines so students could learn bit by bit, uncovering answers for an immediate "reward." Computer-based self-instruction uses many of the principles of Skinner's technique.

    Repeat Skinner's Box Experiment

    Skinner's Box Experiments
    Skinner's Box Experiments

    Warning: Pay notice that in this experiment you deal with animals, when not given appropriate care, can transmit disease. As a rule: all the animals you experiment with should be under veterinary supervision.

    Experiments with electricity should be performed under the supervision of teachers or adults familiar with electricity safety procedures.

    Remember, animals shouldnít be abused in any way. Ask the permission of your school / college / university authorities before you begin an experiment with animals.

    Before you begin, consult the link section of this page and especially Frederic Skinner's books. Ensure that you understand the basic principles. Surf the web further and consult your local library, your teachers and other knowledgeable adults and experts.


    Skinner's Books
    B. F. Skinner - Science and Human Behavior, Macmillan, 1953
    B. F. Skinner - The Behavior of Organisms, Skinner Foundation, 1991
    B. F. Skinner - Schedules of Reinforcement, Skinner Foundation, 1997

    Skinner's Box Web Resources
    A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior - B. F. Skinner Foundation
    The Annual Skinner Box Rat Training Competition - Access Excellence
    Two Types of Conditioned Reflex and a Pseudo Type - Classics in the History of Psychology
    Behaviorism: B. F. Skinner - Linda M. Woolf
    Conditioning and Genetics - The Student Room

    Pavlov Web Resources
    Behavioral Learning - Chapter 15 from Heinemann Psychology
    Classical Conditioning Basics - Bob Kentridge
    Ivan Pavlov: Biography - The Nobel Foundation
    Pavlov's Dogs - The Nobel Foundation
    Ivan Pavlov - Mindy Lautenheiser
    Pavlov Classical Conditioning - Victor Daniels

    My Dog Kelly

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    Last updated: June 2013
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