From Rats to Consumers: Skinner’s Experiment and Business Success

Shah Mohammed
8 min readMar 13, 2023

B.F. Skinner was a prominent psychologist who believed that human behaviour could be shaped through a process known as operant conditioning. His experiments on rats and pigeons provided insights into how behaviour can be modified through positive and negative reinforcement. But Skinner’s theories have also found application in business, helping companies successfully influence consumer behaviour.

Skinner’s famous experiment involved rats being placed in a “Skinner box,” a device that allowed the researchers to control the environment and study the rats’ behaviour. The box was equipped with a lever that, when pressed, would dispense a food pellet. Skinner observed that the rats quickly learned that pressing the lever would result in a reward, and they would continue to do so to obtain more food.

This process of reinforcement, where behaviour is rewarded, has been used by businesses to influence consumer behaviour. For example, loyalty programs that offer rewards for repeat purchases use the principle of positive reinforcement to encourage customers to return to a particular brand or store. Similarly, coupons and discounts that are offered to customers who make a purchase are a form of positive reinforcement that encourages the desired behaviour of buying a particular product.

Negative reinforcement is another technique that Skinner studied in his experiments. This involves removing a negative stimulus when a desired behaviour is exhibited. For example, a customer who receives a late fee on their credit card bill may be more likely to pay on time in the future to avoid negative consequences.

Skinner’s theories have also been applied to the design of products and marketing campaigns. For example, product designers may use the principle of operant conditioning to create easy and intuitive products, providing positive reinforcement for the user. Similarly, marketing campaigns that focus on creating a positive emotional association with a brand can use the principle of positive reinforcement to encourage consumers to choose that brand over others.

Here are some additional points on the business implications of the Skinner Box experiment, specifically in marketing:

01 Rewards and Recognition

Businesses often use rewards and recognition to reinforce desirable behaviour among their customers.

One example of this is loyalty programs, which reward customers for making repeat purchases or engaging with a brand in other ways. These rewards can take many forms, such as discounts, free products, or exclusive access to events or content. By offering these rewards, businesses can encourage customers to continue engaging with their brand and increase their likelihood of making future purchases.

Another example is social recognition, where businesses acknowledge and reward customers for sharing positive experiences or reviews on social media. This can take the form of featuring customer content on the company’s social media channels or offering rewards for sharing positive feedback.

In addition to loyalty programs and social recognition, there are other ways in which rewards and recognition can be used in marketing to reinforce behaviour among customers.

For example, businesses may offer referral incentives to encourage existing customers to refer their friends and family to the brand. These incentives can take the form of discounts, free products, or other rewards, effectively increasing word-of-mouth marketing and driving new customer acquisition.

Another approach is to use gamification, which involves turning tasks or activities into a game-like experience with rewards and recognition for completing certain actions. For example, a fitness app might reward users with badges or virtual trophies for reaching certain milestones or completing certain workouts, which can help incentivize continued engagement with the app.

In all of these examples, the key is to use rewards and recognition to reinforce positive behaviour and create a sense of loyalty and engagement among customers. By doing so, businesses can build stronger relationships with their customers, ultimately driving growth and success in their marketing efforts.

02 Customer Experience

In Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement refers to the process of encouraging desirable behaviour by rewarding it with positive consequences. This principle can be applied to business by creating a positive customer experience at every touch point, which can act as a positive reinforcer and encourage customers to continue engaging with a brand.

Each touch point in the customer journey presents an opportunity to create a positive experience and reinforce desirable behaviour. For example, when customers visit a website, they may appreciate a user-friendly interface, fast loading times, and easy navigation. These positive experiences can encourage the customer to spend more time on the website, explore more pages, and ultimately purchase.

Similarly, when a customer interacts with a customer service representative, a positive experience can create a sense of satisfaction and encourage the customer to continue engaging with the brand. By providing helpful and friendly service, resolving any issues promptly, and exceeding expectations, a customer service representative can create a positive customer experience and reinforce the customer’s loyalty to the brand.

When these positive experiences occur consistently at each touch point, they can become reinforcing behaviour among customers, creating a positive association with the brand that can encourage continued engagement and repeat business.

In conclusion, creating a positive customer experience at every touch point is a powerful marketing tool that can act as a positive reinforcer and encourage desirable behaviour among customers.

03 Personalization

In Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement involves providing positive consequences to encourage desirable behavior. One way that marketers can apply this principle to business is through personalization using customer data.

Personalization involves tailoring marketing efforts to individual customers based on their preferences, behavior, and demographics. By using customer data to deliver personalized marketing messages and experiences, businesses can create a positive reinforcement effect that encourages customers to continue engaging with the brand.

For example, a retailer might use customer data to offer personalized recommendations and promotions based on the customer’s past purchases or browsing history. By providing relevant and timely offers, the customer is more likely to feel satisfied and engaged with the brand, and may be more likely to make additional purchases in the future.

Another example of personalization in marketing is through personalized email campaigns. By using customer data to segment email lists and deliver targeted messaging, businesses can create a more personalized experience that resonates with customers and encourages them to engage with the brand.

However, it is important to note that personalization must be done in a way that respects customer privacy and preferences. Customers may be turned off by marketing efforts that feel intrusive or pushy, so it is important for businesses to strike a balance between personalization and respecting customer boundaries.

Personalized experiences using customer data can act as a positive reinforcer and an example of reinforcing behavior among customers. A well-known example of this is Amazon, which uses customer data to personalize the shopping experience, recommending products and services based on browsing and purchase history. This personalization reinforces positive behavior by making the customer feel understood and catered to, which can increase loyalty and encourage repeat purchases.

Another prime example of this is Netflix, which uses customer viewing data to suggest personalized movie and TV show recommendations that are more likely to resonate with the viewer, thus leading to increased engagement and loyalty. To further reinforce positive behavior, personalized videos showcasing the recommended content can make the customer feel seen and understood, ultimately leading to increased satisfaction and repeat business.

Another example of personalized experiences is in the travel industry, where airlines and hotels use customer data to personalize the experience with customized offers, amenities, and services. By understanding the customer’s preferences and needs, businesses can reinforce positive behavior by creating a more satisfying and enjoyable experience.

Personalized experiences can also be used in the healthcare industry, where patient data can be used to personalize treatment plans, medications, and follow-up care. This reinforces positive behavior by creating a more effective and efficient treatment plan, leading to better patient outcomes.

In conclusion, personalization using customer data can act as a positive reinforcer and reinforce desirable behavior among customers in marketing.

04 Sell Identity

Selling identity through a product or service can act as a positive reinforcer and an example of reinforcing behavior among customers. Customers often want to show their identity through their purchases, and businesses can help them do so by offering products or services that align with their values, interests, and lifestyles.

For example, brands like Patagonia and Toms have built their entire identity around their social and environmental values. By purchasing their products, customers can show their support for these values and reinforce positive behavior. Similarly, luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Rolex sell not just products but also a sense of identity and status, allowing customers to reinforce their social standing and self-image.

Service-based businesses can also sell identity by offering personalized experiences that align with the customer’s identity. For instance, a restaurant that specializes in vegan cuisine can cater to customers who identify as vegan, reinforcing their values and sense of identity.

By offering products and services that align with the customer’s identity, businesses can reinforce positive behavior by creating a sense of belonging and validation. Customers are more likely to continue using these products and services and recommend them to others, leading to increased loyalty and revenue for the business.

05 Emotions

Emotional level connection is a crucial aspect of building a strong relationship with customers. By understanding how customers feel about the brand and its products or services, brands can take steps to improve the emotional connection and reinforce positive behavior.

For example, if research reveals that customers are dissatisfied with a particular product feature, the brand can work to improve it or offer alternative solutions. Similarly, if customers express positive emotions towards a specific aspect of the brand, the brand can capitalize on this to strengthen its emotional connection with the audience.

If a brand receives negative feedback from customers about the quality of its products, it can take steps to improve the quality and address the issues that led to the negative feedback. By doing so, the brand can reinforce positive behavior and encourage customers to continue engaging with the brand. Addressing negative feedback and improving the customer experience can be seen as providing a positive outcome to reinforce positive behavior and encourage customers to continue engaging with the brand.

In addition, emotional level connection can also help to build brand loyalty and encourage positive word-of-mouth. Customers who feel emotionally connected to a brand are more likely to recommend it to others and become loyal customers over time.


Skinner’s experiments on rats and pigeons have provided valuable insights into how behaviour can be shaped through operant conditioning. These insights have been applied in various fields, including marketing, where positive and negative reinforcement techniques influence consumer behaviour. By understanding the principles of operant conditioning, companies can create products and marketing campaigns that encourage the desired behaviour and drive success.