Introduction to Operant Conditioning

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As a child you may painfully recall your parents whipping you or putting you in the corner for your bad behavior. You may also admit to doing something for your friend, not out of the goodness of your heart, but in order to receive something in return. But did you know that the punishment you were given as a child or the reward you were given by your friend are examples of Operant Conditioning? Operant Conditioning, may sound like a fancy, technical term, but it is utilized by all of us in our daily life and not just psychologists in a laboratory. There are two types of learning, Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. Classical Conditioning derives from Pavlov's experiment with the dogs, who eventually began salivating to the sound of a bell, because they associated the sound with food. Operant Conditioning, on the other hand, forms an association between a behavior and a consequence. As child you may have learned to stop throwing tantrums because the consequence was your getting whipped by your parents. And once you received something in exchange for helping your friend, you may be more readily to do it next time because you may be rewarded again.

With Operant Conditioning there are four types in order to produce four possible consequences: Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, and Negative Punishment.

Positive Reinforcement:

With Positive Reinforcement, the behavior increases. Positive implies that something is being added while reinforcement implies that the behavior will increase because of what was added. For example, your doing something for your friend in order to get something in return is an example of Positive Reinforcement. If your friend buys you lunch in exhange for driving him to school, you will continue to drive him to school as long as your friend continues to buy you lunch. In this example, the lunch is the Positive Reinforcer. In another example, money or your paycheck, may be considered a positive reinforcer for going to work every day or putting in more hours.

Negative Reinforcement:

Despite being confused with punishment, with Negative Reinforcement, behavior also increases. Negative implies that something is being subtracted while reinforcement means that the behavior is increasing because of what is being subtracted. Many of us want to avoid getting cavities and as a result, we may brush and floss our teeth more often. In this example, cavities are a negative reinforcer as our behavior, brushing and flossing, increases. Another example is that in order to lose weight we may increase our physical activity. Excess weight in this example is a Negative Reinforcer, because it causes us to increase our exercise in order to get rid of it.

Positive Punishment:

With Positive Punishment, something is being added that decreases behavior. Unlike Positive Reinforcement, the stimuli that is being added is something that is undesirable. For example, a child who is giving a whipping may decrease his bad behavior. The whippings are considered to be the "positive" because it was added to the child's environment and it is considered punishment because it decreases behavior.

Negative Punishment:

However, with Negative Punishment, something is being subtracted that decreases behavior. For example, parents may take a teenager's car away because he got home passed his curfew. The car is considered "negative" because it is being taken away from the teenagers environment and it is considered punishment because it decreases behavior. In order to get his car back, the teenager will no longer come home passed his curfew.

Operant Conditioning is also divided into four specific Reinforcement Schedules: Fixed-Ratio, Variable-Ratio, Fixed-Interval, Variable-Interval. With Ratio schedules reinforcement is given after certain number of responses, while with Interval schedules, reinforcement given after a certain time period. A Ratio and Interval schedule can also be either fixed ( the number of responses or time period is held constant) or variable (the number of responses or the time period is varied). The responses differ from each type of schedule as typically response rate is higher with the ratio schedule.

Overall, with reinforcement must be continued to be paired with the behavior or the behavior decreases altogether. This is known as extinction. If you are not getting paid for working, then you will obviously stop working altogether because money (positive reinforcer) has been removed. Likewise, people who have achieved their ideal body types may stop working our because their excess weight (negative reinforcer) has been removed.

B.F. Skinner, who created the term 'Operant Conditioning' to describe the relationships between rewards and punishment with behavior, thought that everything we learned could be explained with operant conditioning. Although this is not always the case, it certainly explains why humans and animals do a lot of the things the way we do.


More about this author: Sharon Stellarini

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