Bandura and Skinner

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A Comparison and Contrast of Learning Theories:
Albert Bandura and B.F. Skinner


Two prominent researchers, B.F. Skinner and Albert Bandura, have developed theories which provide differing perspectives and explanations regarding the learning behavior of individuals. The purpose of this writing is to explore the theoretical perspectives of Operant Conditioning Theory developed by B.F. Skinner and Social Learning Theory developed by Albert Bandura. An overview of both theories is presented, followed by a discussion of their similarities and differences. Methods

B.F. Skinner: Operant Conditioning Theory

B.F. Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning has at its foundation a desire to demonstrate a “cause and effect” relationship between behavior and reinforcement and focuses on predicting and controlling behavior in observable ways (Skinner, 1953, p. 23). Unlike many of his predecessors, which delved within the personality of the individual to explain behavior, Skinner believed that behavior was actually external to the individual, being shaped by stimuli and reinforcements. He argued that it would be illogical to consider personality traits or inner motives as explanations for behavior, because inner causes can involve circular reasoning. (Cloninger, 2008, p. 288). Instead of attempting to examine internal states that cannot be directly observed and measured, Skinner sought to utilize the scientific method, examining observable behavior through analyzing empirical evidence, based on direct observations: “The practice of looking inside the organism for an explanation of behavior has tended to obscure the variables which are immediately available for a scientific analysis. These variables lie outside the organism, in its immediate environment and in its environmental history. They have a physical status to which the usual techniques of science are adapted, and they make it possible to explain behavior as other subjects are explained in science.” (Skinner, 1954, p. 31).

Operant conditioning can be described as learning behavior in which the frequency of responding (selection of behavior) is influenced consequences. In other words, behavior is determined by environmental outcomes contingent upon the behavior. In order to analyze this learning process, Skinner desired to track changes in behavior in ways that could be clearly observed, measured, and counted. He measured a subject’s level of learning by monitoring its response rate, and recording changes (either increases or decreases) in its behavior, in response to environmental stimuli. The subject’s rate of responding could then be increased by reinforcement or decreased by punishment or extinction, with changes in the response rate being indicative of learning (Cloninger, 2007, p. 289-290). Reinforcement.

Skinner defined reinforcement by giving it positive and negative connotations. Any stimulus that strengthens desired behaviors were defined as positive reinforcers. Negative reinforcers were defined as an averse stimulus that, when withdrawn, also served to strengthen behavior (Skinner, 1953, p. 185). This is not to be confused with punishment, which is when an averse stimulus is presented following a response, in order to reduce the frequency of an operant behavior. All forms of reinforcers, both positive and negative, will serve to increase the rate of responding, while punishment serves to decrease the response rate (Cloninger, 2007, p. 291). Skinner also devoted a great deal of study to different schedules of reinforcement, such as continuous, partial, fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval and variable interval reinforcement schedules, in an effort to determine the contingency between schedule or reinforcement and behavioral response. If a response rate ceases altogether, the behavior is in extinction. However, a behavior that has undergone extinction can return spontaneously...
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