What Is “shaping” in Psychology?

Tetra Images/N/A/Getty Images

In psychology, shaping is a method of behavior training in which reinforcement is given for progressively closer approximations of the desired target behavior. Shaping is also known as the method of successive approximations. Behaviorist B.F. Skinner used shaping as a technique in experiments testing operant conditioning principles.

Shaping is used in operant conditioning, a behavior modification technique developed by B.F. Skinner. In operant conditioning, reinforcement and punishment are used to alter behavior.

Operant conditioning uses positive and negative reinforcement as well as positive and negative punishment to modify behavior by its consequences. Positive reinforcement provides a pleasant or desired reward, while negative reinforcement takes away something pleasant. Positive punishment gives an unpleasant stimuli in response to an undesired behavior. Negative punishment takes away a pleasant or wanted thing.

To test his theories that all human and animal behavior could be explained as a learned reaction to specific consequences, Skinner developed a contraption to empirically test behaviorism and prove the connection between action and consequence. This device, known as a Skinner box, isolated pigeons and rats from extraneous stimuli and left them free to make only one or two simple responses. Using the Skinner box, pigeons and rats were positively and negatively reinforced for certain behaviors.

One of Skinner’s most famous uses of the Skinner box used shaping to condition rats to press a lever in exchange for cheese.