Operant conditioning is a form of learning

Senior (College 4th year) ・Psychology ・APA ・3 Sources

Operant conditioning is a type of learning where, because of the reinforcement provided after a desired response, people or animals modify their actions. A clear example of operational conditioning is that an instructor awards ten percent of the marks to students who attend well. In teaching programmed instructions, where the data is presented in small bits to improve the responses, the principle is applicable (Litow & Pumroy, 1975). The behavior adjustment is the counseling approach that is intensively used for students who have learning disabilities. In normal students, however, the theory will help shape their success abilities and management.

B.F Skinner, who was a behavioral psychologist, is regarded as the father of the operant conditioning theory although the founder of the theory was Edward Thorndiken (Blumberg & Wasserman, 1995).  Skinner conducted his experiments using animals and placed them in “Skinner’s Box,” an experiment that was similar to Edward’s puzzle box. The theorist added a new term Reinforcement and said that a reinforced behavior happens to be repeated and if not reinforced it weakens, and eventually it is extinguished or die out. He identified three types of conditioning, which includes reinforcers, punishers, and neutral operants.

A reinforcer is an environmental response, which increases the possibility of a behavior being repeated (Operant Conditioning | Introductory Psychology", 2017). It can be positive or negative reinforcement. For instance, students trying to smoke at school and the main consequence is they are accepted in a certain special group of friends. In this case, there is a likelihood of repeating the behavior since there has been a reinforcement, that is, the children have been rewarded. Punishers are environmental responses, which reduce the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. If the teacher finds out that the students are smoking, they will be caned, parents will be involved and also they will be sent from school as a punishment which will reduce the probability of smoking again. Neutral operant refers to those environmental responses that do not increase or decrease the possibility of repeating a behavior.

To show how positive reinforcement works, Skinner placed a hungry rat inside the box. The Skinner’s box had a lever on one side, and as the animal moved around, it would knock the lever accidentally. A food pellet dropped immediately in the container that was next to the lever. In a very short time, the rat learned to go directly to the lever each time it was put into the box. The result of receiving food after pressing the lever, strengthened the repetition of the action again and again ("Operant Conditioning | Introductory Psychology", 2017). The positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior given that the consequence is rewarding. For instance, every time a student completes his assignment on time, the teacher rewards him by giving him two dollars. There is a high possibility that the student will repeat the behavior afterwards hence reinforcing the completion of assignments in time.

In the negative reinforcement, B.F Skinner tried to show that a behavior could also be strengthened by removing an unpleasant behavior. The unpleasant stimuli’s removal is rewarding to an individual or an animal. The theorist placed a rat in the box, subjecting it to an electric shock that caused discomfort to it. As it paced around the box and accidentally hit the lever inside, the current would be cut off. After a few times, the rat learned to go direct to the lever to avoid the electric current. The action was repeated by the animal since the consequence was escaping the electric shock. A negative reinforcement encourages a behavior as it stops the unpleasant experience. In a scenario where if the students do not complete their assignments on time and are forced to give two dollars to the teacher each time, they will give their assignment on time to avoid paying the money. Skinner also trained the animal to avert electric shock by switching on the light just before the current came on. The rat learned to press the lever as soon as the light came on since it knew that, that would prevent the electric shock from being switched on.

Reinforcers can be either primary or secondary (“Operant Conditioning | Introductory Psychology", 2017). Primary reinforcers are always biological for example drink, food and pleasure, on the other hand, most human responses are conditioned or secondary for example money, tokens, and school grades. Conditioned or secondary reinforcers get their power through the history of association with the primary reinforcers or other conditioned reinforcers. For instance, if today you are made aware that the dollar is no longer valued then it would lose its power as a conditioned or secondary reinforcer. A secondary reinforcer is always established for instance training a dog to sit. Initially, the word sit, which is a discriminative stimulus would be introduced. A dog would be told to sit, and when it does then, it will be given some food, which is the primary reinforcer. After giving food to the dog then it will be told ‘nice dog.' ‘Nice dog’ is the secondary reinforcer of the praise. The above process would then be redone many times, and gradually the dog would be given the food seldom but still sit when commanded to. ‘Nice dogs’ eventually becomes a secondary reinforcer.

Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement as its purpose is to weaken a response instead of strengthening it. Similar to reinforcement, punishment works by applying unpleasant stimuli directly, for example, applying shock after a response or by removing a rewarding stimulus such as punishing unwanted behavior, by deducting a student’s pocket money. Punishment has its disadvantages in that, a behavior that is punished is only suppressed but not forgotten. When the punishment is not used anymore, then the negative behavior returns. Besides, punishment increases aggression, it does not always guide to responsible behavior as it only states on what not to do and also creates the fear which generalizes to unwanted behavior for example phobia of school.

There different schedules of reinforcement discovered by behavior risks. The different patterns had a different effect on the pace of learning and extinction. B.F Skinner came up with various ways to deliver reinforcement and found that it had effects on the response rate that is, the rate at which the animal knocked the lever.  Extinction rates involved the rate at which the lever knock dies out. The theorist discovered that the type of reinforcement that makes the least rate of extinction that is the longest repeated behavior without reinforcement is known as variable ratio reinforcement. The continuous reinforcement is that which has the most significant rate of extinction.

The type of schedules of reinforcement include continuous, fixed ratio, fixed interval, variable ratio and variable interval reinforcement (McLeod, 2007). In continuous reinforcement, if a human/ animal is reinforced positively each time a certain behavior occurs. For instance, each time a lever is hit a pellet falls and shuts the food delivery off meaning there is slow response rate and a fast extinction rate. In fixed ratio reinforcement, in a specified number of times a behavior happens, that is, when it is reinforced.  For instance, reinforcement happens after multiple right responses such as in every fifth response a child is rewarded a star for every five correct spelled words meaning there is fast response rates and medium extinction rates.

To continue with, fixed interval reinforcement is when a reinforcement happens after a fixed time variation if at least one correct response is made. A good example is being paid per hour. Another example is when in every half an hour a pellet is produced then the food delivery is shut off if the lever has been pressed at least once. Meaning that there is a medium rate of response so is the extinction rate. In variable ratio reinforcement, a behavior can only be reinforced after an unpredictable number of times. An example could be in fishing and gambling meaning the rate of response is fast and that of the extinction rate is low that is its unpredictable nature makes it very difficult to die off. Finally, the variable interval reinforcement occurs when if one correct response is made then the reinforcement is given after an unknown amount of time has passed. For instance on an average of an hour. For example, a businessperson being paid at unpredictable period then the rate of response is fast, and that of extinction is slow.

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Blumberg, M. S., & Wasserman, E. A. (1995). Animal mind and the argument from design. American Psychologist, 50(3), 133.

Litow, L., & Pumroy, D. K. (1975). A brief review of classroom group‐oriented contingencies. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 8(3), 341-347.

McLeod, S. A. (2007). BF Skinner: Operant conditioning. Retrieved September, 9, 2009.

Operant Conditioning | Introductory Psychology. (2017). Courses.lumenlearning.com. Retrieved 12 October 2017, from https://courses.lumenlearning.com/suny-hccc-ss-1511/chapter/operant-conditioning/

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