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Operant Conditioning

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Operant Conditioning

What goes around comes around, they say. But can we apply this principle to human psychology and how it affects our behaviour? Well, such is the intention behind Skinner’s operant conditioning theory.

Operant conditioning states that every action we take while engaging with our environment has consequences. We are more likely to repeat actions with a positive consequence than actions with negative consequences. By receiving punishment as a consequence for a behaviour, we will most likely never repeat that behaviour.

B. F. Skinner (1948) contributed to psychology with his theory of operant conditioning.

Skinner considered classical conditioning an incomplete explanation of human behaviour. He stated that it is essential to consider action and its consequences to determine the causes of human behaviour. Although the mind plays a vital role in learning, it is more objective to study observable behaviour than internal mental processes.

What was Skinner’s (1948) operant conditioning experiment?

Skinner initially based his research on Thorndike’s (1898) law of effect but added reinforcement to it as a new element.

Reinforcement means that a rewarded behaviour is repeated more often than a behaviour that is not reinforced.

He conducted experiments on animals by observing their behaviour in the Skinner box. Skinner developed the Skinner box or the operant chamber, which recorded the behaviour of an organism in a specific time frame. The animal could be rewarded (food pallet) and punished (unpleasant electric shocks) when it exhibited certain behaviours, such as pressing the lever for rats or pecking keys for pigeons. Skinner categorised the responses occurring as a result of interaction with our environment as follows:

  • Neutral responses neither increase nor decrease the probability of repeated behaviour.

  • Reinforcers are the responses increasing the likelihood of repeated behaviour. They can be positive or negative.

  • Punishments are responses decreasing the likelihood of repeated behaviour. They can debilitate behaviour.

Skinner’s operant conditioning experiment, Katarina Gadže, StudySmarter Originals (Made in Canva)

Positive reinforcement

Skinner (1948) described that when positive reinforcement rewards a behaviour, it increases the likelihood of repeating it. Skinner experimented with a hungry rat by placing it in his Skinner box for several days.

As the rat moved around the box, it accidentally pressed the lever connected to a food pallet. The food pallet automatically dropped food into a food dispenser (positive reinforcement). The rat learned this rewarding behaviour quickly after being placed in the Skinner box only a few times.

In real life, you would also have had many positively reinforced behaviours. For example, if you drink an energy booster during work to help you focus and finish on time, you are more likely to repeat this behaviour.

Negative reinforcement

Skinner (1948) described that eliminating a negative stimulus is rewarding to the person and is most likely to reinforce the behaviour in negative reinforcement.

An example would be taking motion sickness medication before a long car ride.

Skinner tested negative reinforcement by placing the rat in the Skinner box for some time each day. When the rat was placed in the box, it received unpleasant electric shocks. When the rat moved in the box, it accidentally pressed the lever and the electric shocks stopped immediately (negative reinforcement). After being placed in the box a few times, the rat quickly learned this behaviour. The next time the rat was placed in the box, it immediately hurried to press the lever to avoid the unpleasant experience of the electric shocks.

These two learned responses are also called avoidance learning.

Punishment

Punishment involves removing a positive stimulus or triggering an unpleasant stimulus to eliminate a particular response.

An example would be your mother punishing you by cutting your allowance because you use swear words around the house.

However, punishment can lead to some lasting effects on the recipient. It is observed that reinforcement tells you what to do, while punishment tells you what not to do; this may not lead to the desired behaviour. Punishment can cause aggression in people because it is a coping mechanism (to deal with problems in life). It can cause a general fear of undesirable behaviours, such as being late to a parent-teacher meeting.

Punished behaviours may be suppressed for a time due to the punishment. They are more likely to reoccur when the behaviour is no longer punished.

Operant conditioning examples and application

There are several examples of applying operant conditioning in everyday life. For instance, we can use operant conditioning to manage students by influencing their abilities and performance.

Teachers may reward individual students with compliments or rewards for class participation.

Skinner’s operant conditioning contributed to developing treatment therapies such as the token economy and behaviour shaping.

Token economy

Token economy reinforces desired behaviour through tokens, which are secondary reinforcers later replaced by rewards known as primary reinforcers. Tokens can be stickers, coupons, money, etc. Rewards also include privileges such as food and activities rewarded with reward points.

For example, a teacher may reward students with five extra points on exams if they participate in class discussions. Such an approach may likely reinforce the desired participation and engagement in class.

Operant Conditioning Token economy example StudySmarter

The token economy in class, reinforcing desired behaviour through rewards, Flaticon

Behaviour shaping

Behaviour shaping can elicit complex responses when rewards and punishments are used in sequential steps. Each reward or punishment should move the person closer to their goal.

For example, companies use non-monetary benefits such as bonuses or free trips to encourage employees to achieve complex project goals.

Operant Conditioning Behaviour shaping example StudySmarter

Behaviour shaping: companies using bonuses to encourage employees to achieve desired targets, Flaticon

Evaluation of operant conditioning

  • Operant conditioning helps explain learning processes such as language acquisition or addictions.
  • The principles of operant conditioning contribute much to practical applications such as token economics or behaviour shaping, which can be used in prisons, classrooms, or with the mentally ill.
  • Bandura’s (1977) social learning theory also supports the principle of operant conditioning, stating that people learn better through observation than through their own experience.
  • Psychologists argue that we cannot apply the results of animal experiments to humans because they differ from animals in their complex anatomy and use of self-control or reason.
  • Skinner based his research on the assumptions of the behaviourist approach. He conducted all of his experiments in the laboratory and were consistent with the assumption that psychology should be treated as a science.
  • Operant conditioning does not consider the influence of biological and mental processes such as memory or problem-solving on the learning process. Therefore, it cannot be regarded as a complete explanation of learning in humans or animals.

Operant Conditioning - Key takeaways

  • Operant conditioning implies that every action we perform while engaging with our environment has consequences. These consequences can be positive and negative.

  • We are more likely to repeat actions with a positive consequence than actions with negative consequences.

  • Behaviour that results in punishment as a consequence is most likely never repeated.

  • B. F. Skinner (1948) contributed to psychology with his theory of operant conditioning.

  • Skinner initially based his research on Thorndike’s (1898) law of effect but added reinforcement to it as a new element.

  • Skinner’s operant conditioning contributed to developing treatment therapies such as the token economy and behaviour shaping.

Frequently Asked Questions about Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning implies that every action we perform while engaging with our environment has consequences. It maintains behaviours.

  • Workers work overtime in the campaign week since they know they will be rewarded with a productivity bonus plus overtime wage.
  • A child will finish his homework every weekend on time as he knows he will be rewarded with 2 hours of watching his favourite cartoon series.
  • Putting on sunscreen whenever we go out during the day to avoid sunburns.

Four types of operant conditioning are: 

  1. Positive reinforcement.
  2. Positive punishment.
  3. Negative reinforcement.
  4. Negative punishment.

The three principles of operant conditioning:

  1. Reinforcement.
  2. Punishment.
  3. Shaping (a way of teaching complex behaviours by rewarding the subject with something they desire).

Final Operant Conditioning Quiz

Question

What is operant conditioning?

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Answer

Operant conditioning implies that every action we perform while engaging with our environment has consequences. It maintains behaviours.

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Question

When did Skinner come up with the theory of operant conditioning?

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Answer

Skinner proposed operant conditioning in 1948.

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Question

Provide one argument in support of operant conditioning.

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Answer

Operant conditioning helps explain learning processes such as language acquisition or addictions.

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Question

Provide an argument against operant conditioning.

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Answer

Operant conditioning does not consider the influence of biological and mental processes such as memory or problem-solving on the learning process. Therefore, it cannot be regarded as a complete explanation of learning in humans or animals.

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Question

Skinner considered that it is essential to consider action and its ________  to determine the causes of human behaviour.

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Answer

Consequences.

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Question

Skinner’s (1948) research was initially based on the law of effect by _____?

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Answer

Thorndike (1898).

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Question

What is a neutral response?

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Answer

Responses that neither increase nor diminish the chances of repeated behaviour.

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What are reinforcers?

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Answer

Reinforcers are responses that increase the likelihood of repeated behaviour. They can be positive or negative.

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What are punishers?

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Answer

Punishers are responses that can debilitate behaviour. These responses can diminish the chances of repeating a behaviour.

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Question

Give an application of operant conditioning.


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Answer

Teachers can give students compliments or reward them points for class participation.

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Question

What is a token economy?

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Answer

Token economy reinforces desired behaviour through tokens considered secondary reinforcers, later replaced with rewards, known as primary reinforcers.

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Question

What is behaviour shaping?

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Answer

Behaviour shaping can produce complex responses by using rewards and punishments with successive steps. Each reward or punishment should bring the individual closer to the goal.

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Question

Which reinforcement is the example of taking motion sickness medication before a long car ride?

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Answer

Negative reinforcement.

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Question

iI you drink an energy booster during work to help you focus and finish on time, you are more likely to repeat this behaviour. Which reinforcement is this?

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Answer

Positive reinforcement.

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Question

Why do psychologists argue that we cannot replicate animal studies on humans?

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Answer

They argue that humans have different anatomy than animals, and they have the power to control many behaviours using reason and self-control, for example.

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