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Operant Conditioning

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  1. 0:10 Operant Conditioning Overview
  2. 2:31 Categories of Reinforcement
  3. 3:28 Intrinsic and Extrinsic Reinforcement
  4. 4:22 Positive and Negative Reinforcement
  5. 6:23 Lesson Summary
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Melissa Hurst

How do we adapt our behaviors to our advantage? Can we learn from punishment and reward? With operant conditioning, our behaviors are shaped based off the responses we get from them.

Operant Conditioning Overview

A baby shakes a rattle. A child plays a video game. A runner competes in a marathon and all of these individuals are reinforced by the results they receive.

These are examples of a form of learning called operant conditioning. The definition of operant conditioning is a form of learning described by many behaviorists in which a response increases in frequency as a result of its being followed by reinforcement. To put it more simply, a response that is followed by a reinforcing stimulus is more likely to occur again.

Operant conditioning has been studied by many behaviorists, including Edward Thorndike, who introduced the law of effect by observing the behavior of animals trying to escape from puzzle boxes, and most notably, by B.F. Skinner. Skinner is often regarded as the 'father of operant conditioning,' although his work was based on Thorndike's law of effect.

Skinner's research on the principles of stimulus and response behavior was first performed on animals using his own invention, the Operant Conditioning Chamber, or commonly known as 'Skinner's Box'. Through these experiments, Skinner found that consequences for the animal played a large role in their response behavior. For example, when a rat pulled a lever, it would receive food. Subsequently, the rat made frequent pulls on the lever.

In order to understand operant conditioning, you must first become familiar with some important terms:

Reinforcer: these are stimuli that increase the probability of the response occurring again. It is important to remember that different stimuli are reinforcing for different individuals.

Reinforcement: this is the act of following a response with a reinforcer. There are categories and types of reinforcement that we will cover soon.

Now you might be asking yourself, how does operant conditioning differ from classical conditioning? In operant conditioning, the individual actively operates on the environment to bring about reinforcement. The response is voluntary. In classical conditioning, however, the individual is passive and the response is involuntary.

Categories of Reinforcement

Now let's get to the categories of reinforcement.

First, we have primary reinforcers: these are consequences that satisfy a biologically built-in need. Such examples include food, shelter and oxygen.

Then we have secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcement refers to a situation in which a stimulus reinforces a behavior after it has been associated with a primary reinforcer. These are a bit more complicated. Money is an example of a secondary reinforcer; money can be used to reinforce behaviors because it can be used to acquire primary reinforcers, such as food, clothing and shelter. Consequences such as praise, money and feelings of success are examples of secondary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcement is also known as 'conditioned reinforcement'.

Intrinsic and Extrinsic Reinforcement

There are also intrinsic and extrinsic reinforcers. Extrinsic reinforcers come from the outside environment. These include things like praise, money, 'stickers' and are often observable and tangible, as opposed to intrinsic reinforcers, in which the reinforcement comes from oneself.

For example, simply enjoying an activity or having a desire to learn more information is intrinsic reinforcement. Exercise could be an example of both extrinsic and intrinsic reinforcement; if a person exercises in order to change their appearance (i.e. to become more muscular or lose weight), then they are being reinforced extrinsically. However, if that individual exercises to simply reap the benefits of increased endorphins and overall well-being, that is intrinsically reinforced.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Now there are different types of reinforcement. We're going to talk about three types that you need to become familiar with.

First, let's take a look at positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is a reinforcing consequence that increases the likelihood of the behavior. These can include praise, food, money and intrinsic reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is our second type that we will talk about. This is the strengthening of a behavior because something negative or unpleasant is removed from the situation, or in other words, the situation is escaped or avoided. For example, you leave the house early in order to avoid getting stuck in traffic and being late for work. Another example is you do your homework to prevent getting in trouble with the teacher the next day. By eliminating undesirable outcomes, the preventative behaviors become more likely to occur again in the future.

Both positive and negative reinforcement strengthen the behavior. In positive reinforcement, a stimulus is presented, and in negative reinforcement, a stimulus is removed. This is a very important concept.

Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, but it is not. Punishment is a consequence that decreases the frequency of the response it follows. Okay, did you catch that? Punishment decreases the response.

Punishment can involve the presentation of an unpleasant stimulus, such as a classroom teacher giving a student more homework as punishment for bad behavior, or the removal of pleasant stimulus. For example, a student loses recess privileges for three days because they failed to turn in their homework. Do you see the difference?

Punishment should be avoided in the classroom unless absolutely necessary because punishment does not promote, nor teach desired behaviors.

Lesson Summary

In summary, operant conditioning deals with reinforcement and the strengthening of behaviors. In operant conditioning, learners are aware and make voluntary responses based on consequences. Participating in a survey for money, receiving praise for turning in an assignment ahead of schedule, receiving a sticker for each book read...these are all examples of reinforcing consequences.

Remember, reinforcers can be positive or negative, and both act to strengthen behaviors and responses. On the other hand, punishment differs from negative reinforcement because it acts to decrease a response, but remember, use punishment sparingly.

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