Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Schedules of Reinforcement at 50: A Retrospective Appreciation

Academic journal article The Psychological Record

Schedules of Reinforcement at 50: A Retrospective Appreciation

Article excerpt


A half century has come and gone since the publication of Schedules of Reinforcement (Ferster & Skinner, 1957), a landmark work in experimental psychology, and inarguably Skinner's most substantive empirical contribution to a science of behavior. The book introduced psychologists to an innovative methodology for studying the moment-to-moment dynamics of behavior-environment interactions, presented volumes of real-time data exhibiting an orderliness nearly unprecedented in psychology, and established the research agenda of the science Skinner termed the experimental analysis of behavior. Although he drew sharp and abundant criticism for his forays into social theorizing, Skinner's experimental work was frequently recognized, even by those not sharing his epistemology, as a rigorous and important development in behavioral science, as attested to by numerous awards, including the American Psychological Association's (APA's) Distinguished Scientific Contribution Award (APA, 1958) and the National Medal of Science (APA, 1969).

Skinner has frequently been acknowledged as among psychology's most eminent figures (Haggbloom et al., 2002). Unfortunately, much of his reputation, among both psychologists and laypersons, stems largely from his writings on freedom, dignity, autonomous man, the limitations of cognitive theorizing, and social engineering. Although this work received considerable attention and provoked much dialogue both within and outside of psychology (see, e.g., Wheeler, 1973), a focus on Skinner's social views may serve to shortchange an appreciation of the important experimental work for which he initially became known. Consequently, it may be fitting to revisit Schedules of Reinforcement (SOR) and to consider its ramifications for a science of behavior more than 50 years since the publication of this influential work. The purpose of the present article is to discuss the psychological climate in which SOR was conceived, the many research programs within behavioral science that benefitted from both the methodology and the conceptualization provoked by SOR, and contemporary basic and applied research utilizing schedules to illuminate many dimensions of human and nonhuman behavior, and to consider some ways in which instructors of psychology might update and extend their coverage of schedules of reinforcement in the classroom.

History and Development of Schedules Research

As is common in science, work on schedules of reinforcement was prompted by serendipitous and practical matters having little to do with formal empirical or theoretical questions. In a very personal account of his development as a scientist, Skinner (1956) discussed how the idea of delivering reinforcers intermittently was prompted by the exigencies of laboratory supply and demand. Because the food pellets used in the inaugural work on operant behavior were fashioned by Skinner just prior to experimentation, their rapid depletion during the course of experimentation was nearly axiomatic:

  Eight rats eating a hundred pellets each day could easily keep up
  with production. One pleasant Saturday afternoon I surveyed my
  supply of dry pellets, and, appealing to certain elemental theorems
  in arithmetic, deduced that unless I spent the rest of that
  afternoon and evening at the pill machine, the supply would be
  exhausted by ten-thirty Monday morning. ... It led me to apply our
  second principle of unformalized scientific method and to ask myself
  why every press of the lever had to be reinforced.
  (Skinner, 1956, p. 226)

This insight would lead to a fruitful program of research, carried out by Ferster and Skinner, over the course of nearly 5 years, in which the patterning and rate of response of nonhuman animal subjects were examined under several fundamental schedules. The research itself, programmatic and unabashedly inductive, was carried out in a style that would scarcely be recognizable to today's behavioral researchers. …

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