Skinner Effect

As a project for Dr. Perry Marker’s Curriculum Development class (EDCT 585), I created a movie that explores some of the possible widespread effects of psychologist B.F. Skinner‘s theories of behaviorism and reinforcement.  Embraced by parents, teachers and even corporate managers, Skinner’s work appears to have turned America from a country of hard-working, selfless citizens into a population of whiners who ask “Why should I?” and “What’s in it for me?” every time they are asked to do something.  While one man’s proposals can’t be blamed for an entire country’s shifting attitudes and priorities, the unblinking acceptance of rewards in the schools has certainly had an impact that can’t be ignored.

Click on the image below to view “Why Should I?”, my movie on the potential Skinner effect:

skinner rat


On a similar topic, here is an article that looks at possible consequences of the self-esteem movement:

“A Downside to High Teen Self-Esteem?” (Chicago Tribune, 7/4/2010)

Leave a comment


  1. Interesting.
    You make a strong case.
    Still, I’m not sure there’s a 1-to-1 here.
    And I have my doubts about how the whole tune in/drop out routine fits in.
    I always encouraged my kids to question pretty much everything.
    As long as it had some rational basis.
    When my kids asked, “Why should I? What’s in it for me?” simply because they didn’t feel like doing something, however, my answer was always…uhhh…motivational.
    People are just as motivated by the possible loss of what they consider a given as they are by that little something extra.
    I gotta think about this some.
    Great job!

    • Laura

       /  December 14, 2009

      I agree, Charlie, that it isn’t as simple as “Skinner said this, therefore that.” However — a couple decades of teachers and parents bribing kids would certainly leave its mark, no?
      I am a big fan of teaching kids to question authority — in fact, as an English teacher, getting them to THINK and QUESTION are two of my main goals. But what if they learn to question without learning WHY they should question and what kind of answer they should be looking for? What if their “why” is really just a shrug of the shoulders that means “I don’t wanna”? That makes the teacher’s job so much harder.
      Definitely no simple answer here — thanks for joining the debate!

  2. Dennis Cardwell

     /  December 11, 2009

    Self-esteem is a natural adjunct of personal accomplishment. Trophies and awards and praise do not create a good sense of self. EARNING trophies and awards and well-deserved praise allow pride of accomplishment to spring from within.

    • Laura

       /  December 11, 2009

      Well said, Mr. C. Some research also says that verbal praise is far more effective than trophies and trinkets. But I’m sure that would depend on the kind of verbal praise…

  3. Molly Arbogast

     /  December 11, 2009

    Good stuff, sis. We are starting to move away from the automatic “dessert if you eat dinner” concept, and moving more into the “because it’s the right thing to do/good for you/ good for our family” way of thought. It’s tough to go against the grain that way. Rewards are so overused in our culture. But I look forward to the payoff of this hard work in the long run!

  4. Philip Wood

     /  December 12, 2009

    Your excellent video reminds me of a conversation I had over around 40 years ago with a young man in Thailand. We were both enlisted men in the Air Force, but as a 19 year old, he thought himself somewhat put upon that while “fighting” for his country, he was precluded from voting due his age. Although I was only four year his senior, our outlooks were so different we seemed to be from a different generations.

    I suggested that citizens had both benefits (voting) and responsibilities (fighting). I also added something about while they can teach a 19 year old how to fight, being an informed voter required a lot more knowledge and experience. After 40 plus years I still believe the first, but not the second. Experience is only useful to those that can actually learn from it.

    B.F. Skinner can be counted as only one voice in a movement that has greatly changed our society. Where personal responsibility has been replaced with what seems to be perpetual victim-hood. In my humble opinion the best education, from parents, teachers or society, is where the child learns how the real world actually works and how best to use the various tools they have been given to work with.

    • Christi Coppo

       /  December 19, 2009

      Laura- Great video.

      I agree that when children are conditioned to value tangible rewards rather than intrinsic or humanistic rewards, we do them and ourselves a great disservice.

      A nation that measures and defines success by monetary measures and acquisition is more of a problem than Skinner’s behaviorism postulates. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no Marxist, but schools of today are little more than a form of corporate training. So, it’s my opinion that education must be fashioned within a public philosophy committed to a radical conception of citizenship, civic engagement, and public wisdom (or social thought). In this type of context, education can then work to link public life to the democratic values of equality, liberty, and freedom, rather than as an adjunct of those corporations whose knowledge and values are defined through the prism of commercial interests and profits.

      Congrats Laura on all your hard work.

  5. Patty Harrington

     /  January 4, 2010

    A colleague and good friend, Dean Tannewitz sent me your amazing work! Wow! This is creative, thoughtful, and thought-provoking. I would love to share your “Why Should I” video with principals with whom I work (I work with Dean for Highly Effective Teaching- otherwise known as ITI). May I have your permission to do that?

    Congratulations on your hard work and perseverance! warmly, patty harrington

  6. Kimberly Leach

     /  January 19, 2010


    I am applauding on the table!!!!! Can I show this at back to school night?

  7. Hi Laura,

    Found your site the circuitous way – from English Companion Ning – and your comments about planning your year (enjoyed what you had to say and agree wholeheartedly about how plans change).

    About “Why Should I?” – Loved your pictorial and musical iMovie. I like the way you wove the graphics and tunes into your story. In the end it is, for me, much like “The Lady or the Tiger?” What’s behind the door?

    I believe that kids today still react positively to timely praise, to understanding that what’s in it for them is learning a practical skill, or in learning how to learn if we can make the journey an interesting one. By making the day-to-day activities as ‘real’ as we can, teachers can show kids that an education is an engaging experience. If we emphasize learning as preparation for more learning to come (high school, college) then we diminish the moment.

    Oops, getting too philosophical for a Saturday morning. Just wanted to let you know how much I enjoyed your movie – and wanted to send along a comment. It gives me pause when I contemplate the number of readers vs. the number of responders.



  8. Laura

     /  May 8, 2010

    I completely agree, Jock, that making the learning engaging and real can make the difference for our kids. And it makes me grateful to be teaching English Language Arts — we have so many great opportunities to bring in the kids’ world and the “real” world via literature and their own writing.

    Thanks for taking the time to read, watch and respond!


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