Skinner's learning theory

Skinner's learning theory - unit 12

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Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning: learning to repeat actions which have a reinforcing or strengthening outcome.

  • relies on voluntary behavour rather than reflexes
  • learning through the consequences of action

Positive reinforcement:- occurs when a repsonse/behaviour is strengthened because it is followed by reinforcement

Negative reinforcement:- occures when a response/behaviour is strengthened due to removal of an adverse stimulus (taking the bad thing away)

 Shaping: the use of operant conditioning to produce behaviour of which individual is not at first capble by reinforcing behaviour which approximates to the desired behaviour. 

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Types of reinforcement

Positive reinforcer - item or event that an organism likes, needs or desires, that is closely associated with particular response, increasing likelihood of the response occuring again

Primary reinforcer - occurs naturally, like food or sleep. Satisfies some physical need.

Secindary reinforcer - can be exchanged ofr primary reinforcer. e.g. money used to obtain something that satisfies our needs

Negative reinforcer - an event which by its removal increase likelihood of a response occurring.

Punishment - unpleasant experience which is associated with a response making response less likely to occur.

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Development of Sex differences

Girls & boys rewarded for different behaviour e.g. girls = caring, sharing behaviour boys = fighting, aggressivine behaviour

  • Parents, peers & others treat children differently according to traditional gender roles
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Pro & anti-social behaviour & attachment

Pro & anti social behaviour

 Pro-social behaviour:- good bahviour rewarded

Anti-social behaviour:- bad behaviour offen repeated as attention given


  • Giving child attention, holiding it close = reward = increases attachment
  • feeding = reward, leads to close-proximity kept by parent & child
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Development of language

 Parents reward vocalisations e.g. babbling - give baby attention & by shaping

  • reward vocalisation for a while e.g. cuddle given, parents become used to child's babbling = movtivates infant to vary babbling
  • accidentally child produces more recognisable speech sounds - give praise to child & encourage repitition - reinforced child's production of this sound
  • parents will not continue to reward sounds - encourage child to modify these sounds until shaping process results in recognisable words - results in sentences increasing in complexity

Skinner's theory seen as  unconvincing..       

- some parents ignore vocalisatios yet language still develops                     - shaping is a lengthy process, child's language development is very rapid   - theory assumes imitation without reinforcement will not lead to learning & this seems unlikely

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Development of language - other explanations

Chomsky:- criticised Skinner's theory, argued that language could not result purely from reinforcement because...

  • majority of sentences that person will speak/understand involve new combination of words that may have never occured before
  • must be some internal system for generating language & meaning, system is too complex to come into existence simply through operant conditioning
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Evaluation of Skinner's LT

Postive points:- 

  • well supported by empirical studies - plenty of evidence that rewarding behaviour shapes behaviour
  • operant conditioning been successfully used to treat people with fears & phobias.
  • operant conditioning provides method for teaching skills & this method does not require language

Negative points:-

  • on its own, operant conditioning cannot explain all aspects of human behaviour & learning
  • skinner ragarded emotions as responses to behaviour & not causes of behaviour
  • theory is seen as being too simplistic
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