A type of learning in which the probability of occurrence of preceding behavior is increased or decreased, depending upon favorable or unfavorable consequences of the behavior is called operant conditioning. Favorable consequences lead to reinforcement of behavior whereas unfavorable consequences lead to punishments.
An experiment was performed by B. F Skinner under a highly controlled environment to study operant conditioning. A rat was kept inside a box known as skinner’s box, which had a controlled environment. Food packet was placed outside the box. Getting of food packet was associated with pressing of lever inside the box. The rat accidently pressed lever and the food was presented. After a number of repetitions, the rat learned that getting of food was associated with the pressing of lever. Thus whenever the rat wanted to have food packet, she pressed the lever. Skinner called this reinforcement.
An American psychologist Thorndike performed an almost similar experiment on cat after which he gave a law known as Thorndike’s law of effect which states “Responses that lead to similar consequences are likely to be repeated.”
Principles of Operant Conditioning:
Principles or stages involved in operant conditioning are:
- Reinforcement (Central Concept)
- Shaping and stimulus generalization and discrimination similar to that in classical conditioning.
These are explained in detail as follows:
Reinforcement (Central Concept):
A phenomenon in which a stimulus increases the chance of repetition of previous behavior is called reinforcement. In Skinner’s experiment, the pressing of lever can be referred to reinforcement.
The phenomenon of reinforcement involves Reinforcer. Any stimulus that increases the probability that a preceding behavior will be repeated is called reinforcer e.g. food, bonuses, toys, chocolates, salary etc all are reinforcers. Reinforcer for one person might not be a reinforcer for the other person. It all depends on individual. Reinforcers can be primary which satisfies biological needs, secondary which helps in meeting the primary needs, positive which adds a stimulus to repeat the preceding behavior or negative which removes a particular stimulus to repeat the preceding behavior. These are explained in detail in article Reinforcement in operant conditioning.
Schedules of Reinforcement:
The process which involves a particular frequency and timing of reinforcing a desired behavior is known as scheduling of reinforcement. These schedules can be continuous or partial.
Reinforcing the behavior every time it is repeated is called continuous schedule e.g. a child wants to learn first 10 digits and we appreciate him every time for learning a single digit. In other words, we reinforce his behavior after learning every single digit.
When behavior is not reinforced every time it is repeated, we call it partial schedule e.g. it is impossible to praise a child for learning every digit when his target is to learn 100 digits at one time. Partial schedule can be of four types which are explained in article Reinforcement in Operant conditioning.
Stimulus that decreases the probability that a preceding behavior will be repeated is called punishment e.g. if we receive a shock for something, there is a very little chance that we repeat that behavior. Removing the shock would be negatively reinforcing it i.e. removal of unpleasant stimulus. Punishment can be of two types; Positive punishment or negative punishment.
Positive Punishment weakens a response or behavior through addition of an unpleasant stimulus e.g. beating a child for misbehaving with elders or spending ten years in jail as a punishment of robbery.
Negative Punishment weakens a response through removal of a Pleasant stimulus e.g. parents may not allow their child to party anymore due to bad academic results, street crimes may discourage us for hangouts till late nights, demoting an employee for his poor performance.
Shaping is a process in operant conditioning in which complex behaviors are taught by awarding closer and closer approximations to the desired behavior. During initial stages, everything related to desired behavior is appreciated, then only the closely related and finally only the desired behavior is awarded e.g. pigeons trained to rescue people lost at sea. Similarly shaping is used in behavior modification, learning alphabets, vocabulary, new language, musical instruments and training of mentally handicapped children. Organization of most of textbooks is based on the principle of shaping. Stimulus generalization and discrimination are similar to that of classical conditioning.
Applications of Operant Conditioning:
The concept of Operant conditioning occurs in classroom management, shaping behavior, teaching of skills, therapies, animal taming etc.