Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

OR

Te first thing I want you to understand is that your life is dictated by operant conditioning, so it will be easier for you to understand than classical conditioning.  Operant Conditioning is the concept hat you can change someone’s behavior by giving them rewards or punishing them.  Let’s pretend that you HATE cleaning your room (it’s a big stretch here I am sure).  Your parents give you $50 every time you clean your room.  Will this change your behavior?  Sure, you will have a REALLY clean room.  But will this change your feelings about cleaning the room?  Probably not, you may clean it more, but you will not enjoy it any more than before you received the money.  Thus, operant conditioning can change your behavior without changing the way you feel inside; a perfect fit for the behavioral school.

Operant conditioning is based on the idea that we make a conscious connection between our behaviors and rewards and punishments.  Unlike classical conditioning in which the learner is passive, in operant conditioning the learner plays an active part in the changes in behavior.  This field was started by a dude names Edwin Thorndike.  Thorndike discovered that cats learn faster if they are rewarded for their behavior (yeah- real genius concept).  He called this idea the law of effect that states if the consequences of a behavior are pleasant, the behavior will likely increase.  He also stated that is the consequences of a behavior are unpleasant, the behavior will not likely increase- and he called this whole idea, instrumental learning.  Now his ideas are important because they were the springboard for the big mac daddy warbucks of operant conditioning, B.F. Skinner.

B.F. Skinner actually coined the term operant conditioning and is started this whole school by inventing the first operant conditioning chamber, otherwise known as the Skinner Box.



  A Skinner box is used to train animals and usually has a way to deliver food to an animal and a lever to press or disk to peck in order to get the food.  The food is called a reinforcer, and the process of giving the food is called reinforcementA reinforcer is anything likely to increase a behavior.  There are two types of reinforcement; positive and negative.

  • Positive Reinforcement: the addition of something pleasant to increase a behavior.  If I want to to study more and give you chocolate for studying, the chocolate is the positive reinforcement because it is pleasant and meant to increase your behavior.
  • Negative Reinforcement: the removal of something unpleasant to increase a behavior.  If you have a headache and I want you to study, I may give you a Advil.  The Advil is the negative reinforcement because it is removal something unpleasant (headache) and increasing your behavior (studying).

We can also change behaviors by using unpleasant consequences called punishments.  It is important to realize that punishment work better to stop behaviors rather than increase them.  There are two types of punishment.

  • Positive Punishment: the addition of something unpleasant to make a behavior less likely.  I want you to stop talking in class, so I flick you with a rubber band every time you open your mouth.
  • Omission Training (or negative punishment): the removal of something pleasant to decrease a behavior.  Your Mom does not let you watch Gray’s Anatomy because you swore at the dinner table. 

Punishment versus Reinforcement

Which one works better?  Well, they both kinda work, but in different ways.  If you guys come late to class I can either punish you for being late or give you a reward for coming on time.  But punishments can cause some problems.  First, punishments should be delivered immediately after the unwanted behavior and should be harsh.  But if they are too harsh there could be unwanted consequences like fear and anger.  Also, punishments often tell the learner what behavior should NOT be exhibited and not what behavior should be.

There are two types of learning that comes from punishment:

  • Escape learning: allows one to terminate an aversive stimulus.  If you hate psychology class you will learn to make a ruckus and act like a schmoolie so I will kick your butt out.
  • Avoidance learning:  You hate psychology class so you simply learn to cut it.

Ok, let’s get back to the other side of operant conditioning; reinforcements.  You should know that operant conditioning uses much of the same terminology as classical conditioning (acquisition, extinction, generalization, discrimination etc…).  For example, if I want my son to increase his bathing behavior (for a 5 year old it really can be a problem), I can give him an extra 30 minutes of TV time after he bathes.  The positive reinforcer I am using here is extra TV time and acquisition occurs when he links together the idea that bathing gives him more Noggin (his favorite TV channel).  Extinction would occur if I stop giving him TV time for bathing and he stops seeing the association.

Whether we are talking about positive or negative reinforcement, they both can fall into two main reinforcer categories; primary and secondary.

  • Primary reinforcer: things that are in themselves rewarding.  Things like food, water and rest.
  • Secondary reinforcer: things we have learned to value such as praise, video games or the big one MONEY.  Money can be traded in for anything and we constantly increase behaviors for money.  But if you think about it, do you really want money?  No, you want what money can buy (except Scrooge McDuck).  We have learned to value money, thus it is a major secondary reinforcer.

One other thing you should be aware of before you pick out a reinforcer, and that is the Premack principle.  The Premack principle basically states that when you are picking out a reinforcer, you must take into consideration the person who is receiving the reinforcer.  If Jose likes mac and cheese but hates practicing ballet, his mother can use mac and cheese  to reinforce his practicing ballet.  Let’s say his brother Jamal hates mac and cheese, but likes practicing ballet.  In this case ballet is the preferred activity, and his mother can use it to reinforce him for eating mac and cheese.

Reinforcement Schedules

Let’s say I want my wife to lose weight and I am going to use operant conditioning to help her.  There are several ways I can give her the reinforcements and each may have a different affect on both the acquisition and extinction of her behaviors.

  • Fixed-Ratio Schedule: provides the reinforcement after a set number of responses.  So I give my wife a massage for every pound that she loses.
  • VariableRatio Schedule:  provide the reinforcement after a random number of responses.  So I give my wife a massage after 1 pound, then maybe 3, then I might wait for 6 pounds, then go back to one pound.  Here acquisition takes longer to set in, but it is also more resistant to extinction.  Can you think of why?
  • Fixed-Interval Schedule: a fixed amount of time passes before the reinforcement is given.  So I give my wife a massage for every 24 hours she stays on her diet.
  • Variable- Interval Schedule: a random amount of time passes before the reinforcement is given.  So I give my wife a massage after 24 hours and then 10 hours of dieting and then 5 and then 48 etc…. Once again the variable schedules (both ratio and interval) are more resistant to extinction but also more difficult to acquire acquisition.

Shaping Behaviors

BF Skinner used both positive and negative reinforcements (he was not really into punishments) to change the behavior of both pigeons and rats (they say he also developed a huge Skinner Box for his son- but that is another story altogether).  Now when Skinner tried to create a behavior in an animal it did not happen at one time.  He did it is small successive steps that he called shaping.  For example, let’s say you want to teach your dog to go fetch your slippers from the closet and you wanted to use positive reinforcement to do so.  You would first give your dog a treat when he goes to your closet (that may take a couple of days).  Then you would reinforce him again when he picks up your slippers.  Then you give him a treat once again when he brings them to your feet.  The idea is that reinforcing all of these small actions is more effective than doing the whole process at once; thus you are shaping the dogs behavior.  Each successive action is called shaping the dog’s behavior, but linking each action to each other, in a particular order is called chaining.