One of the most interesting topics to me we have learned about in the past two weeks is B.F. Skinner's discovery of shaping, right here at our very own University of Minnesota. This is particularly interesting to me because this discovery was made literally in my backyard, at the General Mills flour mill.
Shaping itself seems like common sense, but before Skinner it had never occurred to psychologists to reward 'just part' of a behavior. It had generally been assumed that eventually, with enough waiting, all possible behaviors would occur, and the correct one could be rewarded. Skinner, simply out of boredom, decided to reward behaviors that only resembled the desired behavior. Gradually, they rewarded actions that more closely and closely resembled the final form. They were amazed at the results, being able to train pigeons to 'bowl' in just a few short minutes.
It was amazing to me the implications such a discovery so close to home could have on the entire world. Shaping would become the basis for a revolution in behavioral psychology. It led to the famous 'clicker training', mostly for dogs, but also for horses and even children. It works by telling the animal they did the right thing with a short distinct click, simultaneous to the action. They associate the click with doing the right thing, and this when paired with positive reinforcement is a very effective training technique. This discovery also showed the power of the "social dyad". Shaping can be used to retrain the limbs of stroke patients, or even remove someone's fear of spiders.
This video outlines some of B.F. Skinner's accomplishments with respect to shaping.