Experimental analysis of behavior

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The experimental analysis of behavior is the name given to school of psychology founded by B. F. Skinner, and based on his philosophy of radical behaviorism. A central principle was the inductive, data-driven[1] examination of functional relations, as opposed to the kinds of hypothetico-deductive learning theory[2] that had grown up in the comparative psychology of the 1920-1950 period. Skinner's approach was characterized by empirical observation of measurable behavior which could be predicted and controlled. It owed its early success to the effectiveness of Skinner's procedures of operant conditioning, both in the laboratory and in behavior therapy — what is now called applied behavior analysis.

Philosophical basis of behavioral research

Laboratory methods employed in the experimental analysis of behavior are based upon B.F. Skinner's philosophy of radical behaviorism, which is premised upon:

  1. Everything that organisms do is behavior (including thinking), and
  2. All behavior is lawful, which allows itself to be experimentally studied.

Central to behavior analysis is the use of a Four-Term Contingency (Motivating Operation, Discriminative Stimulus, Response, Reinforcing Stimulus) to describe functional relationships in the control of behavior.

  • Motivating operations (MO) that establish whether or not an organism's behavior will be affected by a consequence. Such antecedent states include establishing operations, which increase the effectiveness of their corresponding consequences, and abolishing operations, which decrease their effectiveness. Besides modulating the effectiveness of consequences, these motivating operations can also acquire discriminative control over an organism's behavior.[3] For example, an organism which is in a state of hunger (establishes food as an effective reinforcer) is more likely to engage in behavior that has previously resulted in being fed, while an organism in a satiated state (abolishes the effectiveness of food as a reinforcer) less likely to engage in such behavior.
  • Discriminative stimulus (Sd) which is a setting or cue, or might be said to be an occasion for a response.
  • Behavior is a response (R), typically controlled by past consequences, which is also controlled by the presence of a discriminative stimulus. It operates on the environment, as in having an effect.
  • Consequences can consist of reinforcing stimuli (Srein) or punishing stimuli (Save) which follow and modify an operant response. Reinforcing stimuli are often classified as positively (Sr+) or negatively reinforcing (Sr-). More complex schedules of reinforcement can also be used.

Experimental tools in behavioral research

Operant conditioning chamber

The most commonly used tool in animal behavioral research is the operant conditioning chamber. The chamber is an enclosure designed to hold a test animal (often a rodent, pigeon, or primate). The interior of the chamber contains some type of device that serves the role of discriminative stimuli, at least one mechanism to measure the subject's behavior as a rate of response — such as a lever or key-peck switch — and a mechanism for the delivery of consequences — such as a food pellet dispenser or a a token reinforcer such as an LED light.

Cumulative recorder

Of historical interest is the cumulative recorder, an instrument used to record the responses of subjects graphically. Traditionally, its graphing mechanism has consisted of a rotating drum of paper equipped with a marking needle. The needle would start at the bottom of the page and the drum would turn the roll of paper horizontally. Each subject response would result in the marking needle moving vertically along the paper one tick. This makes it possible for the rate of response to be calculated by finding the slope of the graph at a given point. For example, a regular rate of response would cause the needle to move vertically at a regular rate, resulting in a straight diagonal line rising towards the right. An accelerating or decelerating rate of response would lead to a quadratic (or similar) curve. For the most part, cumulative records are no longer graphed using rotating drums, but are recorded electronically instead.

An anti-theoretical analysis?

The idea that Skinner's position is anti-theoretical is probably inspired by the arguments he put forth in his article Are Theories of Learning Necessary?[4] However, this article does not argue against the use of theory as such, only against certain theories in certain contexts. Skinner argued that many theories did not explain behavior, but simply offered another layer of structure that itself had to be explained in turn. If an organism is said to have a drive, which causes its behavior, what then causes the drive? Skinner argued that many theories had the effect of halting research or generating useless research.

Skinner's work did have a basis in theory, though his theories were of a different from that those that he criticized. Mecca Chiesa notes[citation needed] that Skinner's theories are inductively derived, while those that he attacked were deductively derived. The theories that Skinner opposed often relied on mediating mechanisms and structures - such as a mechanism for memory as a part of the mind - which were not measurable or observable. Skinner's theories form the basis for two of his books: Verbal Behavior, and Science and Human Behavior. These two texts represent considerable theoretical extensions of his basic laboratory work into the realms of political science, linguistics, sociology and others.

Some notable figures in the experimental analysis of behavior

  • Richard Herrnstein - developed the matching law, a mathematical model for decision making, co-authored the controversial The Bell Curve
  • James Holland - co-wrote the highly cited and well known Principles of Behavior with B.F. Skinner.
  • Fred S. Keller - creator of the Personalized System of Instruction (PSI).
  • Ogden Lindsley - founder of the Precision Teaching approach to teaching.
  • Jack Michael - noted Verbal Behavior and Motivating Operations theorist and researcher.
  • John Anthony Nevin - development Behavioral momentum
  • Howard Rachlin - pioneer in self-control research and Behavioral economics.
  • Murray Sidman - discovered Sidman Avoidance, highly cited author, researcher on punishment, also has been influential in research on equivalance.
  • Mark Sundberg - verbal behavior researcher primarily known for his work in autism.
  • Allen Neuringer - well known for theoretical work including volition perception, randomness, self-experimentation, and other areas.


  1. Chiesa, Mecca: Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science (2005)
  2. Skinner, B.F.: Are Theories of Learning Necessary? (1951)
  3. Laraway, S., Snycerski, S., Michael, J., & Poling, A. (2003). Motivating operations and terms to describe them: Some further refinements. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. 36, 407-413. [1]
  4. Skinner, B.F. (1950) Are Theories of Learning Necessary? [2]

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