Mental HealthScience

B.F. Skinner and his Magical Box O’ Pigeons

Burrhus Frederic Skinner had a plan.

He was going to save the world. And he would do it with a pigeon, a small steel box, and a bag of food pellets.

Skinner was a Professor of Psychology at Harvard University. Throughout his academic career, he studied behaviourism, a school of psychology that was originally developed in the early 19th century. By Skinner’s time, the field was largely based on the ideas of a Russian scientist called Ivan Pavlov, who, in 1901, was conducting an experiment into the psychology of canine digestion.

Well, it was either that, or cure polio.

Pavlov noticed that rather than just salivating in the presence of food, the dogs would also salivate in the presence of the lab assistant who served their food, and decided to test this. From then on, every time the dogs were fed, a bell was rung. Eventually, the dogs began to associate the sound of the bell with the arrival of food, and would slobber profusely whenever they heard the sound. Based on this, Pavlov concluded that it was possible for living creatures to learn behaviours by associating them with events in their environment.

Now, might sound mundane, but we must remember that science isn’t all glamour and parties.

Sometimes it’s clipboards and dog mouths.

Salivation is an unconscious behaviour, but it was later shown the same principles applied to conscious behaviour as well. These two methods of learning were called classical conditioning, and operant conditioning, respectively.

Skinner, however, went beyond these ideas, and devised a philosophy that he called radical behaviourism.

There are two kinds of people who use the word 'radical'. Scientists are one of them.

Radical behaviourism proposed that all action undertaken by organic beings is pre-determined by our environment, and that there is no such thing as free will.

Skinner’s most famous contribution to this philosophy was the creation of the operant conditioning chamber, or, ‘Skinner Box’. In one experiment, he placed several hungry pigeons inside the chamber, and attached a mechanism that would deliver food pellets to them at random intervals. He found that, over time, the pigeons began to associate whatever unrelated action they had been performing at the time (grooming, pecking, cooing) with the arrival of the food pellet. Subsequently, the pigeons repeated these actions whenever they were hungry, in the hopes of getting more food.

They didn’t, of course. Their actions had absolutely nothing to do with whether they got fed or not. But the pigeons had learned that it did.

Skinner had shown that it was possible to train living beings to undertake actions that were completely irrational, and conferred no actual benefit to them, simply by associating that action with a reward.

In a previous post, I wrote about Freud, and his belief that humanity was governed by secret, unconscious desires. In this way, he is the mirror image of Skinner, who believed that humans were best understood as malleable balls of behaviour, who acted according to external factors in their environment.

However, unlike Freud, Skinner was a Utopian, and believed that it was possible for the science of behavioural control to one day create a society in which all people were able to co-operate peacefully, with conditioning and positive reinforcement taking the place of laws preserved by force. According to his book Beyond Freedom and Dignity, one of Skinner’s life goals was to prevent humanity from destroying itself.

And if that happened to involve shutting more pigeons in boxes, then so be it.

We haven’t quite reached utopia yet, but the ideas furthered by Skinner’s work are still being used today. They feature heavily in the world of videogame design (particularly MMORPGS), and in marketing, where, ironically, Edward Bernays, Freud’s nephew, used behaviourist theories of learning to make people associate items such as cigarettes with ideas of luxury and sexual prowess.

More positively, psychotherapy regularly uses a conditioning-derived treatment called Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to help people with conditions such as Anorexia, OCD, or even substance abuse problems.

So, is there anything you’ve ever been conditioned to do?

Would a utopia really be worth it if you had to modify humans without their consent to make it?

And why was anyone studying the psychology of canine digestion in the first place?

Let’s work it out in the comments.


Photo courtesy of the National Library of Scotland

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Alex Hoyle is a blogger, student, transvestite, and occasional stand-up comedian from Bristol, England. He can be found on Twitter as @alexdhoyle.


  1. May 23, 2012 at 4:56 pm —

    You Brits and your ‘behaviour’ spelling. You have been conditioned to add extra U’s!”
    But also, this article is fantastic.

    • May 23, 2012 at 7:19 pm —


      You’re also completely right.

      In this case, the ‘food’ is praise from an authority figure , like a teacher, the ‘bell’ is U.K. Spelling, and the ‘saliva’ is obedience.

      We’re praised for obeying, but we associate the praise with spelling a certain way, so we keep doing it, even though it doesn’t really matter at all.

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