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Law of Effect and Operant Conditioning:

How Skinner Analyzed Thorndikes Study of Reinforcement
Randi Morrow
PSYC 3301-Psychology of Learning
Tarleton State University

Law of Effect and Operant Conditioning: How Skinner Analyzed Thorndikes Study of
B. F. Skinner is the founder of operant conditioning, a form of radical behaviorism
derived from fellow behaviorist, Edward Thorndike (LeFrancois, 2012). Skinners main idea of
operant conditioning was the use of reinforcements and how their consequences resulted in
learning. Instead of looking at the stimulus attached to the behavior, Skinner predicted that
learning could take place through manipulation of the independent variable. By exposing a test
subject for a given period of time with a magnitude of reinforcement, it would ultimately elicit
the intended behavioral response. Such reinforcements included those in which presented a
stimuli of adding something (i.e., food, water, or sexual contact) and those that called for
removing something (i.e., a loud noise, very bright light, and electric shock) either to increase or
decrease a particular behavior (Skinner, 2014). Skinners theory focuses on the relationship


between response and consequences; positive reinforcement as well as negative reinforcement

are what drives an individual to increase or decrease the behavior.
Unlike Skinner, Thorndike theorized that learning focuses on the how stimuli and
responses form through neural connections (LeFrancois, 2012). Thorndike states that the
occurrence of the event, frequency, and contiguity were important variables in determining how
effects of reinforcement effected learning. The law of effect was the main focus area of
Thorndikes research. Thorndike concluded that certain behavior occurred more readily in
comparison with other behaviors in a given situation, he called this the process of stamping in
(Skinner, 2014). In short, he theorized that the consequences of satisfying states would result in
an organism either maintain or does nothing to avoid the behavior.
Skinner used Thorndikes research as a stepping stone for his theory of operant
conditioning and took note of Thorndikes initiative in researching how human behavior works.
However, Skinner could not account for the use of thought-process in Thorndikes puzzle
boxes experiment which tested animal intelligence (Skinner, 2014). Suggesting that repetition
places a stamped in process of predisposition-like learning does not account for all learning
processes. Skinner wanted to build on Thorndikes theory of the use of stimuli by presenting the
use of reinforcement to encourage the behavior based on its consequences and not the stimulus.
Although Thorndike later realized that his original findings were false, he was firm in his belief
of the law of effect in how satisfying states increased a behavior. Not to discredit Thorndike and
his findings, Skinner understood that the learning curves Thorndike presented with the use of
stamping in a single behavior only accounted for that one change, but is not reported directly by
the change itself (Skinner, 2014). Skinners use of positive and negative reinforcement only
enhanced Thorndikes theory.


Skinner, B. F., (2014) Science and human behavior (pp.59-90) . The B. F. Skinner Foundation.
Lefrancios, G. R., (2012) Theories of Human Learning: What the Professor Said (6th ed.).
Wadsworth, CA: Cengage Learning.