Operant conditioning: to reward or to punish?


Have you ever seen how small infants keep on crying till their mother lifts them up or pays them attention? Have you ever wondered why it happens? Not only humans, animals: especially dogs learn not to do certain tasks if you punish them. This type of behavior was explained by the psychologists, John Watson and B.F.Skinner as operant conditioning.

They dismissed the idea of inheritance of instinct and said that behavior is a result of rewards and punishments in the past. Skinner said that the explanation of Pavlov’s classical conditioning is far too simple to explain the complex human behavior and the best way to understand behavior is to look at the cause and its consequences.

Skinner studied the operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a “Skinner Box” The animals had to press the lever to get food, and they kept on pressing the lever to obtain their reward in other words: food. However, if no food was given for some time when the lever was pressed, the behavior of pressing the lever got extinct due to lack of reward.

With the results of this experiment Skinner identified three types of responses or operant that can follow behavior:
Neutral responses: Responses from the environment that neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
Reinforces: Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforces can be either positive or negative.
Punishers: Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.

Operant conditioning can be used to explain a wide variety of behaviors, from the process of learning, to addiction and language acquisition. It also has practical application (such as token economy: giving a token of appreciation when something good is done) which can be applied in classrooms, prisons and psychiatric hospitals for behavior modification.



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