Operant Conditioning

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant Conditioning is another example of a behaviorist theory that also focuses on stimulus-response learning.

Unlike classical conditioning where learning by association is emphasised, operant conditioning focuses on the role of learning from the consequences of our behaviour.

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Key Study: Skinner's research

B.F Skinner conducted research placing rats into a cage that was specially designed to deliver food only when a lever was pressed by the rat. He found that the rats quickly learned to press the lever and would continue to do this until they were full.

Skinner conducted variations of the study. One used a box that administered a continous electric shock under the rat's feet until the lever was pressed.

Another variation delivered a shock to the rat when the lever was pressed. In both cases, the rats swiftly learned what would lead to the most positive consequence and would repeat that behaviour.

Skinner found that rats could be trained to repeat or avoid behaviours by adapting the consequences of their actions to different stimuli such as buzzers, food and lights.

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Reinforcement and Punishment:

  • Positive Reinforcement: a reward as a positive consequence of the action.
  • Negative Reinforcement: means removing something unpleasant as a positive consequence of an action.
  • Punishment: a negative consequence of an action.
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Schedules of Reinforcement:

Continuous Reinforcement: 

  • response rate is low but steady.
  • resistance to extiction is very low - the quickest way to bring about extinction.

Variable Ratio:

A reinforcement is given on average every ten responses. So the number of responses is unpredictable.

  • very high response rate - and very steady.
  • very high resistance to existence - most resistant of all the schedules.
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Skinner's analysis of behaviour:

To analyse behaviour it is nessecary to consider:

  • Antecendants: What happens just prior to a behaviour being performed. In the case of the rat it could be light.
  • Behaviours: Skinner called these operant and the operant in the rat example is pressing the lever.
  • Consequences: This is what happens after the operant. It is the result. So, for the rat it might result in a pellet being administered down the chute.
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Advantages of Operant Conditioning:

  • Evidence suggests that operant conditioning is an effective way for both humans and animals to learn. For example, schools use operant conditioning to shape student behaviour through rewards and punishments.
  • Token economies, a form of therapy based on operant conditioning, have been shown to be effective for treating many different problematic behaviours such as reducing aggressive behaviours in prisoners.
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Disadvantages of Operant Conditioning:

  • Skinner's work was conducted on animals and has been critisised for then being applied to humans. One reason is that humans often have thougths associated with learning that are not taken into account in this theory of learning.
  • Much of research took place on animals and exposed them to some unpleasant stimuli, which may breach ethical guidelines.
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