What Is a Skinner Box?

Pigeons in a Skinner box

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A Skinner box is an enclosed apparatus that contains a bar or key that an animal subject can manipulate in order to obtain reinforcement. Developed by B. F. Skinner and also known as an operant conditioning chamber, this box also has a device that records each response provided by the animal as well as the unique schedule of reinforcement that the animal was assigned. Common animal subjects include rats and pigeons.

Skinner was inspired to create his operant conditioning chamber as an extension of the puzzle boxes that Edward Thorndike famously used in his research on the law of effect. Skinner himself did not refer to this device as a Skinner box, instead preferring the term "lever box."

How a Skinner Box Works

The design of a Skinner box can vary depending upon the type of animal and the experimental variables. It must include at least one lever, bar, or key that the animal can manipulate.

When the lever is pressed, food, water, or some other type of reinforcement might be dispensed. Other stimuli can also be presented, including lights, sounds, and images. In some instances, the floor of the chamber may be electrified.

The Skinner box is usually enclosed, to keep the animal from experiencing other stimuli. Using the device, researchers can carefully study behavior in a very controlled environment. For example, researchers could use the Skinner box to determine which schedule of reinforcement led to the highest rate of response in the study subjects.

Today, psychology students may use a virtual version of a Skinner box to conduct experiments and learn about operant conditioning.

The Skinner Box in Research

Imagine that a researcher wants to determine which schedule of reinforcement will lead to the highest response rates. Pigeons are placed in chambers where they receive a food pellet for pecking at a response key. Some pigeons receive a pellet for every response (continuous reinforcement).

Partial Reinforcement Schedules

Other pigeons obtain a pellet only after a certain amount of time or number of responses have occurred (partial reinforcement). There are several types of partial reinforcement schedules.

  • Fixed-ratio schedule: Pigeons receive a pellet after they peck at the key a certain number of times; for example, they would receive a pellet after every five pecks.
  • Variable-ratio schedule: Subjects receive reinforcement after a random number of responses.
  • Fixed-interval schedule: Subjects are given a pellet after a designated period of time has elapsed; for example, every 10 minutes.
  • Variable-interval schedule: Subjects receive a pellet at random intervals of time.

Once the data has been obtained from the trials in the Skinner boxes, researchers can then look at the rate of responding. This will tell them which schedules led to the highest and most consistent level of responses.

Skinner Box Myths

The Skinner box should not be confused with one of Skinner's other inventions, the baby tender (also known as the air crib). At his wife's request, Skinner created a heated crib with a plexiglass window that was designed to be safer than other cribs available at that time. Confusion over the use of the crib led to it being confused with an experimental device, which led some to believe that Skinner's crib was actually a variation of the Skinner box.

At one point, a rumor spread that Skinner had used the crib in experiments with his daughter, leading to her eventual suicide. The Skinner box and the baby tender crib were two different things entirely, and Skinner did not conduct experiments on his daughter or with the crib. Nor did his daughter take her own life. 

A Word From Verywell

The Skinner box is an important tool for studying learned behavior. It has contributed a great deal to our understanding of the effects of reinforcement and punishment.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Operant conditioning chamber. In: APA Dictionary of Psychology. American Psychological Association.

  2. B.F. Skinner Foundation. Biographical information.

  3. Schacter DL, Gilbert DT, Wegner DM. Psychology. 2nd edition. Worth, Inc., 2011.

  4. Ray RD, Miraglia KM. A sample of CyberRat and other experiments: Their pedagogical functions in a learning course. J Behav Neurosci Res. 2011;9(2):44-61.

By Kendra Cherry
Kendra Cherry, MS, is the author of the "Everything Psychology Book (2nd Edition)" and has written thousands of articles on diverse psychology topics. Kendra holds a Master of Science degree in education from Boise State University with a primary research interest in educational psychology and a Bachelor of Science in psychology from Idaho State University with additional coursework in substance use and case management.