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Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement and Punishment

Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement and Punishment

Description:

This lesson will identify and describe the effects of positive and negative reinforcement, punishment, and aversive stimulus on behavior.

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Tutorial

What's Covered

This tutorial expands upon Skinner's original ideas about operant conditioning. You will learn about:

  1. Positive and Negative Reinforcement
  2. Punishment
  3. Problems with Punishment 

1. Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Recall that operant conditioning is when learning occurs through the association of consequences to behaviors. So operant conditioning is concerned with what happens after and as a result of your actions that makes it more or less likely for you to do something again later.

Reinforcement is anything that follows a behavior and makes it more likely for a response to be repeated. 

Reinforcement is grouped into two different categories: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. It’s important not to think of “positive” and “negative” as good and bad. Rather, these terms discuss the effects or the consequences that change behaviors; thus one isn't better than the other.

Positive reinforcement is anything that is presented to the subject, given to them, and makes it more likely for the response to be repeated.

Term to Know

Positive Reinforcement

Any consequence that is given to the subject that increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.

For instance, this would include things such as if you give a child: candy, or a sticker, or perhaps a high five, or even verbal praise. Anything given to a person and that makes them more likely to do something again later on. 

ExampleSo if candy is given to a child after they do a good job on a test for math for example, they're more likely to perform well in math later because they're receiving that positive reinforcement.

In contrast, negative reinforcement is anything that is taken away from a subject, and makes it more likely for a response to be repeated.

Term to Know

Negative Reinforcement

Any consequence that is taken from the subject that increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.

Remember, reinforcement is all about making it more likely for something to occur. So negative reinforcement is generally taking away something that's unpleasant, and making somebody want to perform an action more. 

ExampleIf there's an annoying sound that's in your room, and it can be turned off by pushing a button; that negative reinforcement is the annoying sound, which makes you more likely to perform the behavior of pushing the button. Or if you perform a chore so as not to get grounded. Or if you're grounded, you can take away that grounding, or that negative reinforcement, by doing the chore. So you're more likely to do what you're supposed to be doing.


2. Punishment

Punishers or punishment follows a response and makes it less likely for a behavior to be repeated.

Terms to Know

Punishment

A consequence that decreases the likelihood of repeat behavior.

Punisher

Same as punishment.

In other words, punishments are trying to suppress a behavior. There has been much research, particularly in the field of childhood development and particularly regarding education, that has shown how effective punishment is.

Under punishment, there is also positive and negative reinforcement:

  • Positive reinforcement of punishment is something you give to a person that makes it less likely for the behavior to occur. For example, that could be something like a loud noise or an electric shock that you're giving to the person.
  • Negative reinforcement of punishment is something you take away that makes it less likely for something to occur. For example, taking away a toy after a child does something bad might make it less likely to do that bad thing that they had done right before.

Punishment, as well as negative reinforcement, is what we call an aversive consequence. That means that it's something following an action that is painful or uncomfortable, that somebody doesn't like. 

The difference between these aversive consequences, these bad things that we're causing, is that negative reinforcement makes it more likely for something to happen, whereas punishment makes it less likely for something to happen. Both of these concepts deal with unpleasant things, but the consequences, the results are different.


3. Problems with Punishment

Punishment can be more powerful than reinforcement, especially in the short term. You can change somebody's behavior rather quickly as a result of punishment, but it can have some negative or unwanted results.

This means that when you're using punishment, you don't teach a person to be positive, or to learn pro-social kinds of behaviors. Generally, you're just teaching them either escape or avoidance learning, which are ways to end an aversive stimulus quickly.

Term to Know

Aversive Stimulus

Unpleasant event in the environment.

Escape learning is learning to respond in a way that ends an aversive stimulus quickly. This means trying to get away from the aversive stimulus.

Term to Know

Escape Learning

Learning whose goal is to get away from the stimulus as soon as possible; "yes, dear".

Avoidance, similarly, is learning to respond in a way that postpones or prevents an aversive stimulus from happening.

Term to Know

Avoidance Learning

Learning whose goal is to avoid the stimulus.

Instead of learning to deal with your problems, like bullying, let's say, a child instead learns to escape or avoid. This in turn rewards them with some kind of relief so that they feel better about the situation. This then makes them more likely to escape or avoid again. So punishment isn't necessarily teaching somebody in the best possible way.

There are a few other notable problems with punishment:

  1. Punishment tends to increase aggression in people, and makes them more likely to react violently towards others. Because punishment deals with aversive consequences, things a person doesn’t like, people tend to react a lot stronger. Thus the important thing regarding punishment is that it needs to be used in the best possible way. In particular, the punishment should be equal or appropriate to what it is responding to. It shouldn't be above what the actual action was.
  2. Punishment needs to follow the behavior immediately so that there's a short amount of time in between the two events.
  3. Punishment needs be followed or combined with reinforcement, as well. So there is some kind of positive aspect that goes along with the child's learning, and not constant punishment.

Summary

Positive and negative reinforcement deals with rewards and punishment, both of which can be positive and negative. Positive and negative does not mean good and bad, but rather they deal with adding or taking away stimuli. Positive and negative reinforcement are both about reducing or suppressing behaviors. There are problem with punishment, however, some  that can cause unwanted results.

Keep up the learning and have a great day!

Source: This work is adapted from Sophia author Erick Taggart.

TERMS TO KNOW
  • Positive Reinforcement

    Any consequence that is given to the subject that increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.

  • Negative Reinforcement

    Any consequence that is taken from the subject that increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.

  • Punishment

    A consequence that decreases the likelihood of repeat behavior.

  • Aversive Stimulus

    Unpleasant event in the environment.

  • Punisher

    Same as punishment.

  • Escape Learning

    Learning whose goal is to get away from the stimulus as soon as possible; "yes, dear".

  • Avoidance Learning

    Learning whose goal is to avoid the stimulus.