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The Basics of Operant Conditioning

The Basics of Operant Conditioning

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This lesson will explain the basic concepts of response chaining, shaping and extinction in operant conditioning & how operant conditioning occurs through examination of B.F. Skinner's box experiment.

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Tutorial

What's Covered

This tutorial will cover another behaviorist approach to learning, operant conditioning. You will learn about

  1. Operant Conditioning
  2. The Operant Conditioning Process
  3. Complex Behavior

1. Operant Conditioning

Behaviorism studies psychology as a result of the interactions with the environment, and a person's behaviors in response to those environments and situations. Operant conditioning, simply put, is learning that occurs through the association of consequences to the behaviors of the person.

Term to Know

Operant Conditioning

Learning that occurs through the association of consequences to behaviors.

Operant conditioning is different from classical conditioning, because classical conditioning examines what happens before an action occurs. It looks at the stimulus that leads to the response and the learner is sort of a passive agent in this. The learner takes stimuli from the environment and spits out these different behaviors.

In contrast, operant conditioning examines what happens after an action, as a result of that action and the situation that caused the action to occur. So operant conditioning looks at how situations and actions are more or less likely to occur later on. The idea is:

  • If something pleasant happens after a behavior occurs, then the connection becomes stronger between that behavior and the situation around it. You're more likely to do that behavior again in the same kind of situation, because it led to something that is pleasant.
  • If something unpleasant happens as a result of the action and the situation, then the opposite occurs. The connection is weaker and you're less likely to perform that action again.

This is what Edward Thorndike referred to as the Law of Effect.

Term to Know

Law of Effect

Edward Thorndike’s concept that if consequences to our actions are pleasant we are likely to repeat our action (strengthen the association), and if the consequences are unpleasant we are not likely to repeat the action (weakening the association).

Thorndike was one of the first behaviorist thinkers under operant conditioning. But probably the most famous and well-known of the operant conditioning people is BF Skinner.

People to Know

BF Skinner

American psychologist, worked primarily with animals in the 1950’s - 1970’s.

Skinner was an American psychologist in the 1950s to 1970s. He's what we would call a "radical behaviorist." This means that he thought that all of psychology and mental states are completely the result of behaviors and they're determined by the environment around us. He believed that free will as an illusion, and we're actually just responding constantly to the things around us.

Now you might agree or disagree with what he thought. But the results of his studies and his information about conditioning has been very informative in psychology.


2. The Operant Conditioning Process

Skinner elaborated on Thorndike's Law of Effect, coming up with several important concepts, including the idea of operant reinforcer and punisher.

Term to Know

Operant Reinforcer

Anything that follows a response and makes it more likely for that response to be repeated.

An operant reinforcer is anything that follows a response and makes it more likely for that response to be repeated. Recall that Thorndike said that, if something pleasant happens after a behavior, you're more likely to repeat the behavior; those pleasant things are what we would call reinforcers.

On the other hand, a punisher is anything that makes it less likely for an action to be repeated, which again Thorndike referred to as being an unpleasant experience that followed a behavior.

Skinner proved these ideas about the operant conditioning process through animal experiments using his invention of the Skinner box, which he named after himself and which others refer to as the operant conditioning chamber.

Term to Know

Skinner Box (chamber)

A simple box with a lever/button and a place to dispense food where an animal is placed and the rate of the lever being pushed is recorded; a.k.a. a Skinner box.

So this is how it worked:

  1. The box was a simple, bare box within a laboratory with a lever or a button inside of it, as well as a small place to dispense food. Sometimes, Skinner boxes would be modified to include lights, speakers, or other similar things. But the simplest form is just the box, lever or button, and a place to dispense food.
  2. The animal was put inside and found that whenever they pushed the lever or the button, they would get food. The rate of the lever being pushed was recorded, show how often the level push occurred over a period of time.

Skinner found that, over time, the rate at which the lever was being pushed would go up. The animal would push the level more often as a result of getting the reinforcer of the food.

Big Idea

The Skinner box experiments showed that the consequence of the behavior makes it more likely for that to occur again.


3. Complex Behavior

More complex behaviors can also be learned through operant conditioning, but not necessarily all at once. And this is what Skinner referred to as shaping.

Term to Know

Shaping

Gradual learning of responses into a desired behavior.

Shaping is the process of gradually learning responses into a desired behavior. You're transforming over time to the behavior that you're trying for at the end.

For example, take the Skinner box again and change the way that the food is being dispensed:

ExampleImagine that a pigeon only gets food at first when it turns its head to the left; every time it would turn it head to the left and then peck, it would get food. Now after that behavior is learned, you would start to change it so that whenever the bird turns its whole body to the left, it will get food. Eventually, through these gradual changes, you can change the behavior so that the pigeon turns all the way around a circle before it will get food.

You'll find that this behavior is repeated because the reinforcer that's causing the behavior to continue to occur and become more likely to occur.

Behaviors can also be linked together in response to a single reinforcer. This is called a response chain or response chaining.

Term to Know

Response Chaining

Behaviors are linked together in response to a single reinforcement.

Response chaining is where one reinforcer can lead to multiple actions in succession.

ExampleThis explains sort of why long-term goals occur. Someone might think, "if I come to class each day, then finish this project, and then present it, I'll get a good grade in my class."

In this way, multiple behaviors lead to one reinforcer at the very end. If the reinforcer is taken away, then the behavior will disappear altogether. This is what's called operant extinction.

Term to Know

Operant Extinction

The relationship between the consequences of a behavior and the behavior itself disappears and a person doesn’t perform doesn’t perform a behavior in a situation.

However, the behaviors don't disappear as soon as that reinforcer is taken away. And sometimes, the behavior will actually increase right before it reaches extinction.

Example This explains why certain negative behaviors in children will increase for a short period of time when they're being ignored. If a child starts yelling for their parents' attention but not getting a response, instead of immediately stopping their yelling because they're not receiving that reinforcer of attention, they might start yelling even louder. But eventually the behavior will disappear in the absence of that reinforcer.


Summary

Operant Conditioning comes from the field of behaviorism. It is related to, but different from, classical conditioning, because it looks at the way behaviors are reinforced after they are performed. The operant conditioning process was shown in Skinner's studies with the Skinner box. And through the process of operant conditioning, many complex behaviors can be better understood.

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

TERMS TO KNOW
  • BF Skinner

    American psychologist, worked primarily with animals in the 1950’s - 1970’s.

  • Law of Effect

    Edward Thorndike’s concept that if consequences to our actions are pleasant we are likely to repeat our action (strengthen the association), and if the consequences are unpleasant we are not likely to repeat the action (weakening the association).

  • Operant Conditioning

    Learning that occurs through the association of consequences to behaviors.

  • Operant Reinforcer

    Anything that follows a response and makes it more likely for that response to be repeated.

  • Skinner Box (chamber)

    A simple box with a lever/button and a place to dispense food where an animal is placed and the rate of the lever being pushed is recorded; a.k.a. a Skinner box.

  • Response Chaining

    Behaviors are linked together in response to a single reinforcement.

  • Shaping

    Gradual learning of responses into a desired behavior.

  • Operant Extinction

    The relationship between the consequences of a behavior and the behavior itself disappears and a person doesn’t perform doesn’t perform a behavior in a situation.