Principles of operant conditioning reinforcement and punishment

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Operant conditioning is based upon the idea that learning is a function of change in overt behavior. The changes in behavior are the result of an individual’s response to events (stimuli) that occur in the environment. A response produces a consequence such as defining a word, hitting a ball, or solving a math problem (Myers, 2004). Behavior often results in a positive or negative consequence, and people learn to associate the two. One key component of operant conditioning is the principle of reinforcement which is a psychological concept based on the idea that the consequences of an action will influence future behavior (Ormrod, 2009). When a particular stimulus-response pattern is reinforced (rewarded), the individual is conditioned to respond. Rewarding behavior is considered reinforcement because it teaches the person that the behavior is desired, and encourages the person to repeat it (Myers, 2004). B.F. Skinner was the first to describe operant conditioning and used the term operant to refer to active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences (Coon & Mitterer, 2008). The distinctive characteristic of operant conditioning is that the organism can emit responses instead of only eliciting a response due to an external stimulus.

Positive reinforcement refers to the presentation of a stimulus after a response, or the introducing of a new stimulus to the person’s environment in order to reward the desired behavior (Ormrod, 2009). This reinforcement or reward can take the form of prizes, verbal praise, or a feeling of accomplishment. For example, you are more likely to continue talking to someone who smiles at you and compliments you, or you may continue to take a subject at a university because you get good marks in it. Positive reinforcement associates a pleasant outcome with the desired outcome (Ormrod, 2009; Myers, 2004). However, reinforcement can also be negative. Negative reinforcers are reinforcers that, when removed, result in the behavior increasing. Therefore, when the bad or aversive stimulus is removed, the behavior will increase (Fadem, 2008). For example, a teenage boy’s mother is forever telling him to paint the kitchen walls or clean his room. Whenever she sees him she starts nagging him and asking when it will get done. This aversive stimuli stops when he paints the wall or cleans the room. This is also true in the case of Ralph, who does his science project because he wanted his mother to stop nagging him about it. His mother’s nagging became the aversive stimulus, and therefore to make the nagging stop, Ralph finished his science project (albeit late).

According to Pierce and Cheney (2004) the removal of guilt or anxiety can be an extremely powerful negative reinforcer. Anxiety may drive one student to complete a term paper early, thereby removing an item from his things-to-do list. Another student confronted with the same paper might procrastinate until the last minute, thereby removing anxiety – if only temporarily – about the more difficult aspects of researching for and writing the paper. Negative reinforcement occurs in the case of Karen, who does her homework assignments as soon as she gets them so she will not have to deal with the anxiety about doing the assignments anymore. Negative reinforcement probably explains many of the escape behaviors that people learn. For example, researchers Magee & Ellis, (2000); McKerchar & Thompson, (2004); Mueller, Edwards, & Trahant, (2003); and Romaniuk, et al., (2002) found that children and adolescents acquire various ways of escaping unpleasant tasks and situations in the classroom and elsewhere. Making excuses (“My dog ate my homework!”) and engaging in inappropriate classroom behaviors provide means of escaping tedious or frustrating academic assignments. Finally, negative reinforcement also occurs in the case of the mother who has three rowdy children. Yelling at the children (the mother’s response) appears to be the method that is used to stop the aversive stimuli (rowdy behaviors). Positive and negative reinforcement are different because positive reinforcement adds or gives something to a situation, whereas negative reinforcement takes away from a situation; both, however, will increase the likelihood of a behavior continuing (Myers, 2004).

Another key component of operant conditioning is punishment, which is the application of an aversive stimulus in an effort to reduce the frequency of a behavior in the future (Ormrod, 2009; Fadem, 2008). Research has shown that punishment decreases behaviors very quickly. For example, in one study by Hall et al., (1971), punishment virtually eliminated the aggressive behavior of a 7 year old deaf girl named Andrea. Initially, this girl often pinched and bit both herself and anybody else with whom she came in contact; the frequency of such responses (an average of 72 per school day) was so high that normal academic instruction was impossible. Following a period of data collection without any intervention (a baseline period), punishment for each aggressive act began: whenever Andrea pinched or bit, her teacher pointed at her sternly and shouted “No!” The brief reversal to a non-reinforcement baseline period on day 25 was used to minimize the likelihood that other factors were responsible for the behavior change. Even though Andrea was deaf, the shouting and pointing virtually eliminated her aggressiveness.

Punishment can take either of two forms: Punishment I (positive punishment) or Punishment II (negative punishment) (Ormrod, 2009). Punishment I involves the presentation of a stimulus, typically an aversive one – for example, giving a child a scolding for misbehavior or a failing grade on a test. Another example might be if you stroke a dog’s fur in a manner that the dog finds unpleasant, the dog may attempt to bite you. Therefore, the presentation of the dog’s bite will act as a positive punisher and decrease the likelihood that you will stroke the dog in that same manner in the future. In the case of the two girls who were laughing in the back of the classroom, the teacher’s scowl was the aversive stimulus that caused the girls to feel embarrassed and to immediately become quiet. This is an example of punishment I because the presentation of an aversive stimulus (the scowl) caused a decrease in the undesired behavior (laughing). Punishment II involves the removal of a stimulus, usually a pleasant one (Fadem, 2008); examples might be fines for misbehaviors (because money is being taken away) and loss of privileges as in the case when a child talks back to his parents. In this case, the child may lose the privilege of watching his favorite television show. Therefore, the loss of viewing privileges will act as a negative punisher and decrease the likelihood of the child talking back in the future. In the case of John, who was caught cheating on an exam and then removed from the basketball team, the removal from the team was a loss of a privilege and decreased the likelihood that John would cheat again in the future. Because of the removal of a pleasant stimulus (playing basketball) resulted in John ceasing to cheat on exams, this is an example of punishment II.

Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment (Weiten, et al., 2008). Although both phenomena may involve aversive stimuli, they differ in two critical respects. First, they have opposite effects. Negative reinforcement increases the frequency of a response, whereas punishment decreases the frequency of a response (Weiten, et al., 2008). A second crucial difference concerns the order of events. With negative reinforcement, the aversive stimulus stops when the response is emitted. With punishment, however, the aversive stimulus begins when the response is emitted. The termination of an aversive stimulus negatively reinforces a response; the initiation of an aversive stimulus punishes a response (Weiten, et al., 2008).

Social Learning Theory: Observational Learning, Vicarious Reinforcement, and Vicarious Punishment

Most learning theories assume the individual must have direct experiences in order to learn. According to social learning theory, much of learning occurs by observation – watching other people and determining what happens to them (Light & Littleton, 1999). Learning is often a social process, or other individuals, especially “significant others”, provide compelling examples or role models for how to think, feel, and act (Hutchinson, 2003). While Miller and Dollard (as cited in Ormrod, 2009) viewed social learning as a mixture of behaviorist and psychodynamic influences, Albert Bandura is credited with outlining the behaviorist, cognitive, and more recently, the social cognition dimensions of this theory.

Role modeling is a central concept of the theory (Light & Littleton, 1999). For example, a more experienced nurse who demonstrates desirable professional attitudes and behavior sometimes is used as a mentor for a less experienced nurse, while medical students, interns, and residents are monitored by attending physicians. Vicarious reinforcement is another concept from the social learning theory and involves viewing other people’s emotions and determining whether role models are rewarded or punished for their behavior (Hutchinson, 2003; Gage & Berliner, 1998). If a model is reinforced for a response, then the observer may show an increase in that response. For example, if a boy named ‘Joe’ sees his friend ‘John’ gain popularity among the girls because he can play the guitar and bat his eyelashes in a come-hither fashion, then Joe may very well buy a guitar and take a few guitar lessons; he may also stand in front of the mirror practicing eyelash batting. Vicarious reinforcement also takes place in the case of Mary and Judy. Mary observes her friend Judy getting special privileges when she talks very sweetly to the teacher. As a result of Judy modeling the sweet talking behavior and being rewarded for such behaviors, Mary now begins to sweet-talk the teacher in order to get special privileges (rewards) as well. Weiner, et al., (2003) note that the behavior of a role model may be imitated, even when no reward is involved for either the role model or the learner. In many cases, however, whether the model is perceived by the observer to be rewarded or punished may have a direct impact on learning.

The power of vicarious reinforcement (and vicarious punishment as well) was dramatically illustrated in an early study by Bandura (1965). Children watched a film of model hitting and kicking an inflated punching doll. One group of children saw the model reinforced for such aggressive behavior, a second group saw the model punished, and the third group saw the model receive no consequences for the aggression. When the children were then placed in a room with the doll, those who had seen the model being reinforced for aggression displayed the most aggressive behavior toward the doll: they had been vicariously reinforced for aggression. Conversely, those children who had seen the model punished for aggression were the least aggressive of the three groups: they had been vicariously punished for such behavior.

Christy (1995) examined the effects of vicarious reinforcement with remedial preschool children in two classrooms. In seat behavior in selected target subjects in each group was reinforced with edible rewards (e.g., candies, nuts). In separate phases, different children served as the target subject. In general, when one child received reinforcing consequences in the classroom, peers who did not receive these consequences tended to show similar increases in behavior.

Finally, Drabman and Lahey (1994) evaluated the effects of vicarious reinforcement to a disruptive child on the behaviors of her peers in a fourth-grade classroom. Periodically, the teacher provided ratings from 1 to 10 that reflected the degree to which the target child performed appropriate classroom behavior. The ratings provided feedback for the child’s performance and could not be exchanged for other reinforcers. Feedback not only altered the behavior of the target subject, but also the behavior of her classmates as well. One can conclude that social learning theory shows that people learn new behavior through overt reinforcement or punishment, or via observational learning of the social factors in their environment. If people observe positive, desired outcomes in the observed behavior, then they are more likely to model, imitate, and adopt the behavior themselves.

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