Edward Thorndike vs. B.F. Skinner

Conditioning human behavior is a topic that has been researched for years.  Two psychologists that spent much of their lives researching and testing their theories were Edward Thorndike and B.F. Skinner.  Both psychologists developed their own theories on how to condition human behaviors; Thorndike’s theory is called the Law of Effect and Skinner’s theory is the Reinforcing Stimulus/Reinforcing Concepts.  Although both theories are different, they both share many similarities and can potentially be combined to help create an effective computer software program to effectively teach students in the classroom.

Thorndike’s Law of Effect states that a response followed by a pleasant consequence is more likely to be repeated, whereas a response followed by an unpleasant consequence is more likely to be diminished.  The Law of Effect is directly a function of the interactions between positive (pleasant) and negative (unpleasant) reinforcements and punishments.  A positive consequence is defined as the gaining of something, while a negative consequence is the removal of something.  A positive reinforcement can be defined as something that can be perceived as a pleasant consequence, thus increasing the likelihood that a behavior will occur again.  A negative punishment is defined as something that provides an unpleasant consequence thus decreases the likelihood that something will be repeated.  The greater the reinforcements or punishments, the greater the effects of the law.

Skinner’s Reinforcing Stimulus/Reinforcing Concepts defines a reinforcing stimulus or reinforcer as a special kind of a stimulus encountered by someone performs a behavior.  This special stimulus has the effect of increasing the behavior occurring just before the reinforcer.  Skinner’s concepts state that if a behavior is followed by a consequence, and the nature of the consequence modifies tendency to repeat the behavior in the future.  A behavior followed by a reinforcing stimulus may result in an increased probability of that behavior occurring in the future; while a behavior that lacks a reinforcing stimulus may result in a decreased probability of that behavior occurring in the future.

Both Thorndike’s and Skinner’s theories have many similarities and differences.  Both theories recognize that consequences due to behaviors have a direct impact on conditioning human behavior.  However, in Skinner’s theory, a behavior is likely to reoccur based on a reinforcer rather than whether the stimulus is positive or negative.  Thorndike’s theory on the other hand is based primarily on the reinforcements and punishments, both which in theory could be stimulating.  Both theories can cross paths in an attempt to positively reinforce someone for a good behavior.  The theories are less likely to co-exist in negative behaviors.  For example, if a child does something they are not supposed to, you are likely to yell no to them which is a negative punishment, however still very stimulating to a child.  The one instance when a the theories can cross paths for negative behavior is when the negative punishment described by Thorndike involves taking attention away from the person doing the behavior, thus limiting the stimulus described by Skinner.

In designing a computer-based training program, it is critical to take the consistencies within both of these theories to identify the most appropriate ways to positively reinforce students for success within the computer-based or web-based training program, while limiting the stimulus for incorrect answers or decisions within the program.  As a result, a proper computer-based training program should be designed with many bells and whistles for positive reinforcement and stimulus for positive decision making while incorrect decisions will be identified by least reinforcing scenarios such as a single black and white note stating that the answer was wrong.

Skinner and Thorndike have similarities when combined to create an excellent foundation for designing computer-based training and web-based training.  The two greatest impacts to conditioning behavior are positive reinforcements such as exciting stimulus and least reinforcing scenarios to be treated as negative punishment.  Computer-based training and web-based training and virtual scenario based trainings are excellent ways in the Era of Technology to continue to condition human behavior.

By Higher Power Training: Providing Instructional Design and Training Services since 2000






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