Skinnerian Conditioning: 3 Ways to Control Your Mind

Skinnerian Conditioning

Do you ever struggle with procrastination? Quitting a bad habit? Or maybe you just can’t get yourself into a good one consistently and wonder what you’re doing wrong?

Well, there are many answers to that question, but from personal experience it is usually down to not understanding the root of the problem. In this article we will look at 2 separate conditioning theories which should help you figure out why you behave the way you do, and what you can do to change that.

Skinnerian Conditioning:

Skinnerian conditioning, also known as operant conditioning, is a powerful psychological concept developed by B.F. Skinner in the mid-20th century. It focuses on how behaviour is influenced by the consequences that follow it. This theory has profound implications for understanding and modifying human habits. In this article, we will delve into the principles of Skinnerian conditioning and explore its practical applications for both breaking and forming habits.

Understanding Skinnerian Conditioning:

Skinnerian conditioning operates on the premise that behaviour is shaped by its consequences. It can be broken down into two main components: reinforcement and punishment.


  • Positive Reinforcement: This involves providing a positive stimulus immediately after a desired behaviour, which increases the likelihood of that behaviour occurring in the future. For example, giving a treat to a dog when it sits on command.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This involves removing an unpleasant stimulus immediately after a desired behaviour, which also increases the likelihood of the behaviour happening again. An example would be getting out of bed to turn off your loud and annoying alarm.


  • Positive Punishment: This involves introducing an aversive stimulus immediately after an undesired behaviour, with the aim of decreasing the likelihood of that behaviour happening again. For instance, scolding a child for misbehaving.
  • Negative Punishment: This involves removing a desirable stimulus after an undesired behaviour, which aims to decrease the likelihood of the behaviour occurring again. An example might be taking away a teenager’s phone after they break a rule.

Applying Skinnerian Conditioning to Breaking Habits:

Breaking habits can be challenging, but Skinnerian conditioning offers effective strategies:

Positive Reinforcement: When trying to break a habit, replace it with a desirable behaviour and reward yourself for it. For instance, if you’re trying to quit smoking, each day without a cigarette could be rewarded with a small treat or an activity you enjoy.

Positive Punishment: While this method is less commonly used for breaking habits, it can be effective in certain cases. For instance, if you’re trying to quit procrastinating, you might impose a small penalty on yourself for each instance of procrastination.

Negative Punishment: Most schools use this when booking students in for a break or after school detention. Where the break time they would normally spend with friends is taken away due to them performing an undesired behaviour.

Skinnerian conditioning provides valuable insights into how behaviour can be shaped through consequences. By applying the principles of reinforcement and punishment, individuals can effectively break old habits and establish new ones. It’s important to remember that consistency and patience are key when using these techniques. By understanding and harnessing the power of Skinnerian conditioning, individuals can take proactive steps towards personal growth and positive behaviour change.

The problem here however, is discipline. You might start out by following your own rules of reward/punishment, but it usually starts to slip and you give it up after a while. Hence why it is good to think of things that may be slightly more out of your immediate control – like a phone app which limits how often you can access social media. This can help you get over that initial “I can’t be bothered for this anymore” feeling, which tends to fade after a few hours.

However, this is just one option, this is more conscious and in your control, but there are subconscious factors at play which you need to understand to truly get a good chance at forming or breaking habits.

Classical Conditioning:

Classical conditioning is another influential psychological concept, developed by Ivan Pavlov in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It focuses on how associations are formed between stimuli and responses (the subconscious reasons behind why you have certain cravings, needs, desires). While it differs from Skinnerian conditioning, it complements it in understanding and influencing behaviour.

Understanding Classical Conditioning:

Classical conditioning involves pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to create a conditioned response. The key components are:

  1. Unconditioned Stimulus (US): This is a stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a specific response. For example, in Pavlov’s famous experiments, food was the unconditioned stimulus because it naturally elicited salivation in dogs.
  2. Unconditioned Response (UR): This is the automatic response that occurs in reaction to the unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiments, the salivation in response to food was the unconditioned response.
  3. Conditioned Stimulus (CS): This is initially a neutral stimulus that, through repeated association with the unconditioned stimulus, comes to evoke a response. In Pavlov’s experiments, a bell was initially a neutral stimulus, but after being repeatedly paired with food, it became a conditioned stimulus.
  4. Conditioned Response (CR): This is the response that is elicited by the conditioned stimulus alone, after conditioning has taken place. In Pavlov’s experiments, the salivation in response to the bell (without food) was the conditioned response.

I’ve personally used this one to help myself break some negative habits. Understanding the subconscious reasons for your behaviour is the first step to taking control as it helps you identify when a behaviour is likely to take place, and it helps you consciously prevent it.

For example, you may feel like you always need a cigarette at a certain time; it may be that your brain has made a connection between an event, a group of people, or a place and associated it with a dopamine rush given to you through nicotine. Hence why you may feel like you need a cigarette all of a sudden. Anything could be a cue, and you could have many of them, so it is important to think about whatever it is you’re trying to do, and unpacking why you’re doing it, when, etc.

Applying Classical Conditioning in Habit Formation:

Classical conditioning can be a powerful tool in habit formation:

  1. Pairing the CS with a Desired Behaviour: If you want to establish a new habit, you can associate a specific cue or action (the conditioned stimulus) with the behaviour you want to establish. For example, if you want to associate stretching with waking up in the morning, consistently perform the stretch immediately after waking.
  2. Repetition and Consistency: Like in classical conditioning experiments, repetition is crucial. Consistently pairing the CS with the desired behaviour reinforces the association, making the behaviour more likely to occur in response to the cue.

Integrating Classical and Skinnerian Conditioning for Habit Change:

Classical conditioning and Skinnerian conditioning can work hand in hand to influence behaviour:

  1. Reinforcing Desired Behaviours: Use Skinnerian positive reinforcement techniques to reward yourself for engaging in the desired behaviour associated with classical conditioning. For instance, if you’ve paired stretching with waking up (classical conditioning), reward yourself for doing it consistently (Skinnerian positive reinforcement).
  2. Removing Obstacles with Negative Reinforcement: Use negative reinforcement to remove obstacles that hinder the habit formation process. For example, if you’ve associated a specific place with a habit, arrange the environment to make it more conducive to the behaviour.
  3. Breaking Old Habits with Punishment: In some cases, classical conditioning can be used in conjunction with Skinnerian punishment to discourage unwanted behaviours. For example, if you’re trying to quit snacking in the evening, you might pair the sight of snacks with an unpleasant stimulus (like a bitter taste).

Skinnerian Conditioning – Final Thoughts:

By understanding both classical and Skinnerian conditioning, individuals have a comprehensive toolkit for influencing behaviour and habit formation. Classical conditioning provides a framework for associating stimuli with responses, while Skinnerian conditioning offers strategies for reinforcing or discouraging behaviours based on consequences. By integrating these approaches, individuals can enhance their ability to break old habits and establish new, positive ones. Remember, patience and consistency are key when applying these techniques to achieve lasting behaviour change.

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