Wanted. One Skinner Box. Two Lever Model.

I took a required psychology class in college and remember a lecture on B.F. Skinner, who introduced the theory of operant conditioning, proving his theory with a contraption now known as the Skinner Box.

You put a hungry mouse in a Skinner box, which comes equipped with a lever, and in short order the mouse figures out that pushing the lever produces a pellet, so it learns to hit the lever to feed itself. Or you put the mouse in a Skinner box equipped with a lever and a painful electric current.  The mouse learns quickly to hit the lever to stop the current.

Pandora has conditioned me using the exact same technique. If I give a song a thumbs up, I get more songs I like.  If I give a song a thumbs down, it ceases immediately. It took about an hour. I thought about all of the other ways I’ve been conditioned. I go to work to get paid. I make cookies for hugs. I don’t eat them to avoid weight gain.  Or I eat them to feel happy.  Could go either way.

Anyways, It all sounds so simple in theory, this conditioning trick. Why, then, can’t I   condition my own children?  Honestly, I can’t get them to do anything and I’ve been a parent for 30 years. I may just be the world’s worst parent. Don’t let me watch your kid. I’ll break them.

The secret to the Skinner box (and Pandora) is consistency. I lack consistency.  In the Skinner box, it’s like Southern California, sunshine every day. Hit a lever get a pellet, hit it again, get a pellet, every single time.  In the Chicken box, it’s less predictable. It starts out with a lever that produces a pellet, but then the next day, the pellet might have become a strawberry because that seemed healthy and diverse and a good idea at the time. However, the strawberries got all mushed together in the feeder tube, and what came out when the lever was pushed was a strawberry-ish smelling goop that no one would touch. So then the Chicken reverts back to the pellets, but decides to paint the lever bright yellow to brighten up the box, but it doesn’t matter because no one will push the lever anyways. Who knows wha might come out?  Everyone is starving. The Chicken feels bad for not providing like a boss, so she opens the door to the Chicken box and throws in a pepperoni pizza, some fries and some Hershey bars, and everyone is happy.  They never ever touch the yellow lever again, conditioning the chicken to repeat the pizza/fry/Hershey bar behaviour over and over again. Forever.

Or, in the second scenario, the Chicken decides that bed-time should take place at 9 pm and that the consequence of not doing so should result in the loss of story time, and she explains this new program in detail on the first night. The second night she gets caught up in a documentary on television about a haunted mansion in Telluride, which reminds her of John Denver, and she knows she has a CD of his biggest hits around somewhere which she suddenly, desperately, wants to listen to, so she tears the house apart looking for the CD, and she forgets about the new bed-time rule.  The next day she remembers, but everyone else has forgotten and looks at Chicken like she might have three heads, causing her to feel like maybe she does indeed have three heads, and so she offers an extra 10 minutes of story time as compensation for having a mother with three heads, a tactical error on her part, because she has now conditioned the entire family to look at her as though she has three heads, which results in her running around like a Chicken without any heads at all in an effort to keep up with all the compensatory demands.

Still with me?

So now I’m trying to order a Skinner Box or a Skinner Box kit-maybe IKEA has one-so that I can train myself to be consistent, and if that doesn’t work, at least I’ll have a nice quiet place to escape my children.  I’m going to put it out in the garden. It will have a hammock, a pile of books, Internet service, and two levers. One will dispense chardonnay and the other chocolate and savoury snacks. If you need me, I’ll be in the garden. Don’t tell the kids.


  10 comments for “Wanted. One Skinner Box. Two Lever Model.

  1. July 12, 2016 at 3:23 am

    Ah, but if the preferred reward is staying up past 9:00, and if the kids can distract Mom, she’ll forget bedtime rules. And not every night, but once in a while, hence partial reinforcement scheduling, which strengthens behavior that is ultimately more resistant to extinction versus continuous reinforcement. So maybe they’ve learned the reward-reinforcement cycle all too well, but in reverse. Your kids are pretty smart!


    • July 13, 2016 at 12:32 am

      Hi! Yes, you’re right, they are, but doesn’t it seem as though MY partial reinforcement would produce the same result? Like, oh today, there’s bedtime but tomorrow there’s not because….JOHN DENVER…..but after that there is? See, I think that might be an urban myth, that whole partial reinforcement thing. It’s never worked for me, anyways. It’s worked ON me, but I’m a simple chicken. I’m easily conditioned and forget pretty much everything, except that you are not supposed to say irregardless, so I always say regardless. I’m a collector of ultimately useless knowledge.


  2. Doug in Oakland
    July 12, 2016 at 3:47 am

    There were two pigs in a Skinner box, and it was always the dominant pig running back and forth between the snout-lever and the food trough at the other end of the box, whereas the submissive pig would just hang out by the food trough and snaffle up as much food as he could before being shoved aside by the high-velocity incoming alpha pig… I don’t know what that means or how it relates to your post, I just typed it from memory from one of my journals. I think there was some political point about our then president, or some motorcycle joke but I’m much too lazy to dig it out and re-read it.
    One of my favorite bloggers, Michelle from Rubber Shoes in Hell did this stand up at Listen to Your Mother, about how she handled her son’s reluctance to do his chores:


    • July 13, 2016 at 12:38 am

      Hi Doug-Michelle, she gets me. I enjoyed that. And she’s found the secret. So in about 3 years, I’ll know what to do and this is why blogging is great.


  3. July 12, 2016 at 12:46 pm

    You forgot all the outside factors, like the cousins and your sister’s theories on raising her own and your kids.


    • July 13, 2016 at 12:43 am

      True, Dat, Joanne-I hope the modern Skinner box has a lever for cutting unwanted opinions short!


  4. jenny_o
    July 13, 2016 at 12:47 am

    I hear you … I’m a distractable sort, too, and try as I might, I found it hard to be consistently consistent with our kids. If my husband had had his way, home life would have been like the army. Between the two of us, we managed. You remember more psychology than I do – kudos for that!


    • July 13, 2016 at 12:58 am

      Hi Jenny-I had a cute teacher. I know it’s a cliche, but I remember more because I had a crush on him. It’s sad. Or is it? I didn’t take Psychology II so I don’t know. I suspect it is, though. BigB is consistent-I have him to thank for littleb’s logical take on the world. I know it didn’t come from me.


  5. July 14, 2016 at 12:43 pm

    Somewhere, Vi just cracked open a grin. And probably a new bottle of Allen’s. Here’s to inconsistency, Chicken.


    • July 14, 2016 at 1:05 pm

      Hi GG. Vi probably has cracked open a bottle of Allens, and a sort of a quizzical smile, and she’s saying, “What? I don’t get it? Skinner Who?”, and that’s the essence of Vi. I miss her.


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