Operant Conditioning



Operant conditioning involves learning through consequences. It is more voluntary than the learning seen in classical conditioning. The idea is that when people behaviour in a particular way and are rewarded for it, they will repeat it. If they are punished for the behaviour, they will stop doing it.

It is different from classical conditioning because the consequence comes after the response (rather than the stimulus coming before the response).

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Key Terms

  • Reinforcement increases behaviour e.g giving money
  • Punishment decreases behaviour e.g electric shock
  • Positive is where something is given e.g sweets
  • Negative is where something is taken away e.g stop them doing something

So you can have positive/negative reinforcement or positive/negative punishment

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The Skinner Box

The skinner box contained a lever for an animal, such as a rat or pigeon, to press for food to be delivered. It also had a speaker and lights that could be used to trigger a behaviour and a shock generator was connected to the floor to deliver an alectric shock in response to a behaviour. The whole idea behind the Skinner Box was to create an environment in which an experimenter had complete control over everything the animal inside experienced. For example, in one condition the food was only released if the rat pressed the lever when the light was red.

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ABC Model of Operant Conditioning

  • Antecedant: the Skinner Box would present a stimulus (light/noise) that triggers the behaviour
  • Behaviour: a response made by an animal that can be observed (measured) as an outcome of the antecedant
  • Consequence: the reward/punishment following the behaviour/shock

Behaviour will be repeated is the consequence is positive. Behaviour will also be repeated if something unpleasant is removed in response to desired behaviour. Punishment will weaken behaviour.

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  • Thorndike and Skinner showed how animals like cats and pigeons could be conditioned be reinforcing/punishing targeted behaviours. Using controlled lab experiments, they were able to identify the external determinants of behaviour and the schedules of reinforcement. Their findings have been replicated and have good reliability.
  • Because they focused on learning in animas, it is difficult to generalise the findings to humans.
  • Conclusion: although it is likely that there are similarities, humans have more complex cognitive and emotional dimensions that may not generalise from animals.
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  • The training of animals , such as guide dogs, police dogs, horses etc.
  • Retailers - vouchers and reward points
  • Token economies in prisons, hospitals, schools etc.
  • Society is based on the principle that if you work, you will be paid with tokens (money) which can then be exchanged for food, drink shelter etc.
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  • The theory is based on scientific framework. This is a strength because it has replicable and objective empirical evidence to support it, unlike the psychodynamic exlanations.
  • Can explain a range of behaviours, such as gambling, shopping habbits etc.
  • Research on animals not only creates problems in terms of generalising the findings to humans, but also raises lots of ethical issues over the use and treatment of animlas
  • Research may lack ecological validity - in the real world, behaviours may be learnt and repeated without any need for rewards.
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Alternative Theory

Biological theories suggest animals may be born with instincts or more predisposed to learn certain behaviours. This is ignored by operant conditioning. Therefore, learning theory is reductionist.

Cognitive theories emphasise the importance of thought process. Psychodynamic theories focus on emotional components of learning. Learning theories ignore both cognitive and emotional components of learning. They ignore the meaning of a behaviour and why we choose when to display a behaviour and when not to. Therefore, learning theory is reductionist.

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