In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms.
This week’s term: Operant conditioning
Operant conditioning relates to how actions are affected by stimuli from the environment. The concept was developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s, and builds on Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments in which dog were observed to salivate in response to the conditioned stimulus, i.e. a bell.
Operant conditioning uses rewards and punishments to influence behaviour. It’s worth noting that from a behaviourist perspective these responses are not based on the person as a whole but rather specific behaviours. There are 5 different types of responses to behaviours, and the terminology can be a bit counterintuitive:
- Positive reinforcement: a reward is given, with the aim of increasing the frequency of the behaviour
- Negative reinforcement: an unpleasant stimulus is removed, with the aim of increasing the frequency of the behaviour
- Positive punishment: an unpleasant stimulus is applied, with the aim of decreasing the frequency of the behaviour
- Negative punishment: something positive is withdrawn, with the aim of decreasing the frequency of the behaviour
- Extinction: a behaviour that was previously reinforced is no longer given reinforcement, and eventually the associated behaviour no longer occurs
There are a variety of factors that influence the degree of effectiveness of these measures, including the timing and consistency with respect to the behaviour. Operant conditioning can get quite complex, involving chains of different behaviours. Praise has been shown to be very effective as a positive reinforcer.
According to Wikipedia, some research has shown that certain neurons that release the neurotransmitter acetylcholine and others that release dopamine are activated following a conditioned stimulus. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease (which affects the dopamine/acetylcholine balance) respond differently to reinforcers and aversive stimuli depending on whether or not they are on their medication.
Operant conditioning is the foundation of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which is best known for its use with children who are on the autism spectrum. This approach is controversial and has been challenged by many autism advocates as a misguided attempt to “cure” autism.
There are various overtly harmful applications of operant conditioning. It can be used as a tool for psychological manipulation, and the intermittent use of reward and punishment can be especially damaging in this sort of abuse. This pattern can be seen in trauma bonding. Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement in the workplace can contribute to a climate of fear.
Awareness of the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment can help us to understand how our responses to the behaviour of others can affect future repetition of that behaviour. Once I was doing a night shift at the concurrent disorders program where I work, and a client had been clomping up and down the hall like an elephant. I told him that he needed to stop. He was openly defiant and kept on pacing. The next day, a counsellor working with him told him that it’s okay, he can pace as much as he feels he needs to. The problem is, from an operant conditioning perspective, she was not only giving positive reinforcement (in the form of praise) to the pacing, she was also positively reinforcing the defiance, making it more likely that the behaviour will be continue.
Clearly there are ethical issues that can arise from trying to use operant conditioning to manipulate someone. However, if we’re not aware of the impact of our reactions then we’re not doing anyone any favours.
Do you having any thoughts on whether this kind of conditioning is useful or problematic?
I got the idea for this post from a discussion with Meg at Why does bad advice happen to good people?
You can find the rest of the What Is series on my blog index.