Operant Conditioning

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B.F. Skinner was one of the most prominent psychologists of the last century. He is credited with the discovery of operant conditioning. Skinner attended Harvard University. His goal was to study animal behavior in a scientific manner. He conducted many famous experiments during his lifetime. These experiments demonstrated that behavior was influenced not only by what occurred before it (as in classical conditioning, but also by what occurred afterward. Skinner believed that human beings (and animals) learn a behavior through a system of rewards and punishments. These rewards and punishment occur naturally in the external environment. When psychologists use the word "environment," they are referring to all the external events that are going on around a person. Thus, my boss smiling at me is an external event and part of my environment. In contrast, my thoughts and ideas about my boss smiling at me are internal events. These internal thoughts, called cognitions, are not considered part of my environment. It was not until much later that it was discovered these cognitions also influence behavior. This subsequent recognition resulted in the inclusion of the "cognitive" portion of the cognitive-behavioral theory.

Skinner's focus on behavior and the environment was quite unique at the time. Prior to Skinner's work, the newly emerging field of psychology was heavily influenced by Freudian theory. According to Freud, psychopathology was a function of "unconscious processes," "intra-psychic conflicts," and childhood fantasies. Because these Freudian concepts cannot be observed nor measured, they were not suitable for scientific study. Skinner, and many other behaviorists of his era, believed psychology should be limited to the study of things that can be measured. Otherwise, psychology could not advance as a legitimate science. This is because science can only study things that can be measured. Thus, the focus shifted to studying observable and measurable events; namely, behavior and the environment itself.


Skinner demonstrated that by manipulating the rewards and punishments in the environment, a behavior can be learned (and unlearned). In behavioral terms, a reinforcement (reward) refers to anything that causes a behavior to increase. In contrast, a punishment is something that causes a behavior to decrease. If the environment rewards a behavior, that behavior is reinforced. This increases the likelihood that a person will repeat the same behavior in the future. Conversely, if the environment punishes a particular behavior, this decreases the likelihood the behavior will be repeated. To illustrate, let's imagine you smile every time you pass by your boss at work. Your boss responds by smiling back at you, and greets you with a warm and hearty, "Hello!" This interaction leads to pleasant emotions. These pleasant emotions serve as an environmental reward. Since the response from your boss was rewarding by producing pleasant emotions, it was positively reinforcing. Therefore, it is likely that you will continue to smile at her each morning because smiling was reinforced by your environment.

Skinner's work resulted in many practical applications. These applications ranged from teaching effective parenting skills to improving employee productivity and satisfaction in the workplace. Because of Skinner and other influential researchers of his era, today's cognitive-behavioral psychologists have systematic methods available to help people change problematic behaviors. This is accomplished by evaluating and altering the environmental influences that reward or punish a person's behavior.

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Let's use an example to illustrate these concepts. Suppose a family wants their child's temper tantrums to stop. So, they ask a behavioral psychologist to help them. First, the psychologist will observe the child and his family in their natural environment. This is often called a behavioral evaluation. The purpose of the behavioral evaluation is to identify, and to understand, the environmental factors that may be reinforcing the tantrum. The evaluation will record when, where, and with whom, the tantrum occurred. In other words, the evaluation assesses the circumstances in which the tantrum occurred. These are considered the antecedents to the tantrum. Antecedents are the things that happened before the tantrum occurred. For example, do the tantrums occur more frequently in the evenings, when the mother is busy cooking dinner, and unable to give the child her undivided attention?

The behavioral evaluation will also record of the consequences of the tantrum to identify the environmental factors that may be reinforcing the tantrum. The consequences are the things that happened after the tantrum. When the child begins to cry, does the mother stop her dinner preparation, and give the child her attention, thereby unwittingly rewarding the tantrum? After identifying all of these important environmental variables, the psychologist would coach the parents to alter the environment so as not to reward the tantrum. This might involve asking the family to simply ignore the tantrum whenever it occurs. This would serve to stop rewarding the tantrum. Likewise, they may be encouraged to reward the child when the tantrum stops. The psychologist may also coach them to provide the child attention for positive behavior during meal preparation. Perhaps finding the child could be included in the meal preparation in some small way. When the tantrum is no longer reinforced by the mother's attention, it will gradually fade away. In behavioral terms, this is called extinction.

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