Introduction to Operant Conditioning

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"Introduction to Operant Conditioning"
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When the field of psychology first developed, it began as a way to study human behavior. Over time, assorted fields of psychology had developed many different methods for studying both humans and animal activities that still are in conflict today. With that in mind, we need to examine one of the two most common techniques used, classical and operant conditioning, focusing entirely on the latter.

Operant conditioning decrees that a behavior may or may not be repeated, depending on how much pain or pleasure the behavior has caused in the past, based on trial-and-error processes. An elaboration of classical conditioning, operant conditioning required human intelligence that is complex, allowing for the introduction of human choice and free will. Both psychological processes were used in order to study how learning was accomplished, an essential part of their development in the early days of psychology.

Ivan Pavlov and Edward Thorndike
The psychology of classical conditioning took root in Russia under the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, the very first scientist to study animals and their learning processes in an orderly and systematic way. This would eventually lead to the development of behaviorism psychology under John Watson, an advent admirer of Pavlov. Meanwhile, another form of conditioning psychology developed in the United States that began to be referred to as "operant" or "instrumental" conditioning, based on the ideas of Edward Thorndike.

Edward Thorndike was a psychologist who originally began his research by studying chickens, and then cats. After observing them and there problem-solving techniques, he developed the "Law of Effect", which states that a behavior that has a positive outcome will more than likely be repeated. From this point of view, he developed his "Law of Exercise," which stated that if the response was repeated in a particular situation because of a positive outcome, it would eventually become linked to that type of situation-and therefore, it would probably be repeated in the future with it.

B.F. Skinner's influence on the general public of operant conditioning
Eventually operant conditioning became more recognized and accepted in the public's eyes through the psychologist B.F. Skinner, who worked in a Massachusetts State Hospital with mental patients. Becoming a leading figure in behaviorism, he showed the world that knowledge could be attained through learning. When operant conditioning first began, it was tested through animals, which gave rise to the "cause and effect" reality. But B.F. Skinner moved the field into human affairs instead of just animals, which compromised the already existing fields of classical conditioning and behaviorism. Rules changed, the results changed, and the world changed overnight-but the field of operant conditioning by Thorndike was more refined and pronounced than ever before through Skinner's theories.

All three men-Pavlov, Watson, Thorndike, and Skinner-believed in the "stimulants-response pattern" that was a trademark of each man and his psychology. Today, computers are the reward system along with other forms of technology in our schools, which reinforce through the accomplishments of the lessons. Interactive games and software are rewards, raising the teacher's expectations of the students and the results. Good behavior is rewarded and reinforced, while punishment suppresses a behavior by removing the computers or technical tools, which presents a negative reinforcer. Crucial to maintaining behavior or removing/changing bad behavior, these early forms of psychology are being put to use today more than any other time.

In operant conditioning, behavior is seriously affected by outcome. And for many years, all forms of psychology have pointed toward behavior as being affected by its consequences. Individuals go to a psychologist to change a behavior or to remove it. However, in operant conditioning the process is not a trial-and-error method of learning as in other methods. A behavior can be removed or changed through its consequence, with the response first occurring before it can be reinforced-with the reinforcer being negative or positive.

Complex responses are being shaped through reinforcements, rather than being removed. Behavior modification is a technology that resulted from experimental analysis of operant behavior, which involves many things:

*Changing the consequences of behavior
*Removing consequences which cause problems
*Arranging new consequences for weak behavior

More about this author: Nancy Houser

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