Lecture: Learning
Reading Assignment 12:
Operant Conditioning (pp. 167-177)
Click for Objectives for Reading Assignment 12

The twelfth reading assignment introduces students to Operant Conditioning and several principles related to it. The work of Operant Conditioning should not be mentioned without also mentioning B. F. Skinner, who promoted a perspective referred to as Radical Behaviorism. To create his own comprehensive perspective, B. F. Skinner had to explain two very different classes of behaviors: Elicited Behavior and Emitted Behavior. Only the latter, Emitted Behavior, is relevant to this reading assignment. Emitted Behaviors are intentional and occur for a specific purpose, which is usually to produce a desired consequence (See Operant; 2nd paragraph of Emitted Behavior).

The notion of consequences of behavior, in the sense that B. F. Skinner considered, can be traced back to Edward Thorndike and his Law of Effect. In a similar fashion, learning theories distinguish between two types of consequences that can follow a behavior. Radical Behaviorism referred to them as a Reinforcer and Punisher. Although they differ in how they impact the behavior that caused them, they are similar in two ways. First, they can be anything that appropriately follows a behavior emitted by the organism. Second, their definitions are similarly limited by Empiricism; meaning, that a change in behavior must be observed, not assumed, before it can be classified as either type. For instance, if a child raises their hand in class and gives the correct answer the teacher may give them any range of things (i.e., stimuli). The child may be given a piece of candy, money, praise, or simply putting their name on the board. Anyone of these items could potentially be a Reinforcer - or not, as we must observe that it actually increases the likelihood of the behavior. Imagine that one student is very shy and does not wish to be singled out in any way shape or form at school; for this student, putting their name on the board may not be a desired consequence. Having their name on the board (noticeably different from others because it is obvious that they have more stars than any of his other peers) may not increase the likelihood that he participates in class. It may have no impact on raising his hand in class or it may decrease the likelihood that they will raise their hand. These two similarities are important for parents and teachers to know, as it is often one of the reasons why techniques in the classroom do not work as intended.
Basic Principles of Operant Behavior
There are four basic principles that have been found to govern Emitted Behavior. These principles differ in that some increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future, while others decrease their likelihood. These principles are: Positive Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, Negative Reinforcement, and Negative Punishment. These four principles are very tricky to distinguish and have been the subject of amusement at National Conferences; when I was in graduate school, I attended the 27th Annual Meeting of the Association of Behavior Analysis. At that meeting, they presented a PowerPoint presentation depicting real-world situations that the audience had to identify as one of the four aforementioned principles. At first I was embarrassed by my mistakes but then I surveyed the room of more than 500 experts in the field. I noticed that they too were making similar mistakes and laughing about it. In response to that embarrassing moment, I have developed a two-step process that is bound to ensure that you never make a mistake in identifying these basic principles.
The Two-Step Process (To Identify The Basic Principles). Perhaps the hardest step in this process is to readily identify the relevant behavior and stimulus for the situation in question. The good news is that I will do this for you. On the exam, I will describe the situation and identify the relevant consequence (by listed “Stimulus” in parentheses) and act (by listing “Behavior” in parentheses).
Step#1: Identify whether the “Stimulus” is being presented or removed.
If the stimulus is being presented, we can be confident that we are dealing with “Positive something.” We cannot be confident that it is either Positive Reinforcement or Positive Punishment, however, we can rule out Negative Reinforcement and Negative Punishment.
If the stimulus is being removed, then the exact opposite is true; we can be confident that we are dealing with “Negative something.”
Step#2: Identify whether the “Behavior” increases, decreases, or no change occurs.
If the behavior increases, we can be confident that we are dealing with “Something Reinforcement.” As Reinforcement can be defined as a conditioning process that strengthens or increases the likelihood that a behavior occurs again. If the behavior decreases, we can be confident that we are dealing with “Something Punishment.” As Punishment can be defined as a conditioning process that weakens or decreases the likelihood that a behavior occurs again.

If we simply answer either of these questions in isolation, we cannot be certain what the “something” is; however, the combination of our two answers will correctly identify the principle in effect in the situation. Mistakes are easy to make and, as discussed before, occur among those that have far greater experience with these principles than you or I. Attached is a handout to help you practice the necessary skills to determine which of the four basic principles is occurring in the examples.
Schedules of Reinforcement
In the real world, desired consequences (1) do not always occur and (2) they may not occur immediately. Both of these factors are important and impact the effectiveness of the four basic principles of operant conditioning. It has also proven to be advantageous to strategically present the consequence of a behavior according to a schedule of reinforcement. One possible means to deliver a Reinforcer is through a Continuous Schedule of Reinforcement, which is contrasted with four different types of Intermittent Schedules of Reinforcement. Intermittent Schedules include two major sub-classes referred to as ratio schedules and interval schedules. Ratio schedule are contingent on a predefined number of behaviors that must occur before the Reinforcer is presented; thus a ratio will exists between the number of behaviors and Reinforcers delivered. Interval schedules are schedules that are contingent on two things: first, a predefined time period must elapse; second, the organism must then emit the desired behavior. The ratio and interval may be arranged (or occur in a real-world setting) in a variable or fixed manner, which results in the four different types of Intermittent Schedules of Reinforcement: Fixed-Ratio, Variable-Ratio, Fixed-Interval, and Variable-Interval. Each type of schedule, including the Continuous Schedule of Reinforcement, elicits predictable and characteristic response patterns from the participating organism.
Advanced Concepts Related to Operant Conditioning
More advanced principles and concepts related to Operant Conditioning are also relevant to this reading assignment. Although referred to as advanced in this reading assignment, they are likely familiar to you as they occur in everyday situations. For example, children learn early that their parents may hold different views on issues. Mom may be extremely sensitive to injuries, while Dad may only express concern about injuries that led to medical expenses or significant bleeding. As the child grows older, these differences may result in the presence of your parents serving as a Discriminative Stimulus. When Dad is home, it might signal to you that it is much more likely that you can ride your bike, unsupervised, to your friend’s house in the next neighborhood. If Dad were not home, that same request might be denied. Attending to a Discriminative Stimulus, is a very adaptive trait influenced by one’s history of reinforcement.

Shaping is a very powerful technique that can be used to teach a new behavior in humans and animals. It is a powerful technique in that it can teach humans and animals new behaviors through appropriately applying the basic principles of operant conditioning. First, a desired target response must be identified. Depending on the organism, it may also be beneficial to consider approximations of the new target behavior that will help accomplish the end goal. Shaping has been used to train Orca Whales at Sea World, dolphins, and is often used to get a laboratory rat to press the lever of an Operant Chamber for the first time. Also frequently used in animal training is Chaining, which boils down to the linking of individually reinforced behaviors together to create a more complex sequence of behavior. When Chaining is successful, a behavior that at one point served as a Reinforcer will now serve as a Prompt (i.e., Discriminative Stimulus) to begin the next desired behavior in the sequence.
Applications of Operant Conditioning
It is often stated that one of the most empirically based theories of motivation comes from learning theories. The name of theory is the Drive-Reduction Theory of motivation. At the center of this theory is the notion of a Drive, which may be innate or learned. These Drives, when unsatisfied, are thought to motivate human behavior.
Finally, another application of Operant Conditioning comes in the form of Biofeedback. As stated previously, Operant Conditioning deals with behaviors that are voluntary or under conscious control. However, in some situations an individual might need some assistance with identifying when they are engaging in behaviors in which they are not consciously aware of. Many people chew on their fingers or pencils when they are stressed and are not aware of these habits and, depending on the individual, may adamantly argue that they do not. Technology might aid this individual, and others like them, to change behaviors that are not under conscious control. Biofeedback can be beneficial for bed-wetting, nervous ticks, and grinding one’s teeth while sleeping.



A. Lefton, L.A. & Brannon, L. (2003). Psychology (8th Ed.). Allyn & Bacon: Pearson Education, Inc.
On-Line Resources
A. Levine, A. (1999). Negative Reinforcement University. Maricopa Center for Learning and Instruction (MCLI). URL: http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/proj/nru/
Draft of Summary
Banks-Harrell, T. (2012, Fall). Assignment 2.3. Draft of summary submitted in partial fulfillment of Introduction to Experimental (RPS 410).
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