An operant conditioning chamber (sometimes Skinner box) is laboratory equipment used in the experimental analysis of behavior to study animal behavior. The operant conditioning chamber was created by B. F. Skinner while he was a graduate student at Harvard University around 1930. It is used to study both operant conditioning and traditional conditioning. The structure forming the shell of a chamber is a box large enough to simply accommodate the organism being used as a subject. (Common model organisms used include rodents generally lab rats pigeons, and primates). It is often sound-proof and light-proof to avoid distracting stimuli.

Operant chambers have at least one operandum (or “manipulandum”), and often two or more, that can automatically notice the occurrence of a behavioral response or action. Typical operanda for primates and rats are response levers; if the subject presses the lever, the opposite end moves and close a switch that is monitored by a computer or other programmed device. Typical operanda for pigeons and other birds are response keys with a switch that closes if the bird pecks at the key with enough force. The other minimal requirement of a conditioning chamber is that it has a means of delivering a primary reinforcer or unconditioned stimulus like food (usually pellets) or water. It can also register the delivery of a conditioned reinforcer, such as an LED as a “token”.

With such a easy configuration, one operandum and one feeder, it is possible to investigate many psychological phenomena. Modern operant conditioning chambers naturally have many operanda, like many response levers, two or more feeders, and a variety of devices capable of generating many stimuli, including lights, sounds, music, figures, and drawings. Some configurations use an LCD panel for the computer generation of basically any stimulus. Operant chambers can also have electrified nets or floors so that electrical charges can be given to the animals; or lights of different colors that give information about when the food is obtainable. Although the use of shock is not unheard of, approval may be needed in some countries to avoid needless harmful experimentation on animals. Skinner’s work did not focus on punishment, and involved a “paw slap” which caused him to conclude, incorrectly, that punishment was ineffective. Works by Azrin, Sidman and others in the 60s and 70s proved this was not the case.

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