Applications of Operant Conditioning

Examples of operant conditioning surround you in your daily life. Think for a moment about why you do the things you do. Your life is filled with reinforcers and punishers. You go to work because you get paid to do your job. Would you still go to work every day if that reinforcer wasn't in place? Probably not. When you drive to work, you likely stay within a reasonable approximation of the speed limit (at least we hope so) because if you didn't, you could get a speeding ticket, have to pay a fine, and risk having your insurance rates rise or risk getting into an accident. Do you drink coffee in the morning? This too can be a form of operant conditioning. After all, you drink the coffee because the caffeine helps to wake you up, right? Or perhaps you simply like the taste or the warmth it provides. Regardless, the effects of the coffee are reinforcers, increasing the likelihood that you will continue to drink the coffee each morning.

Operant conditioning can lead to bad habits. For instance, smoking is a bad habit and harmful to your health, so the punisher (deterioration of your health) should ideally decrease the likelihood that you will continue smoking, right? Well, unfortunately, many find that the reinforcers of smoking (relaxing feeling, feeding the body's addiction, etc.)outweigh the punishers and therefore continue the habit. Also, the reinforcer is closer in time to the behavior, where the punisher is far away in time — thus not a very effective contingency.

Teaching Behavior to Others

So far, this chapter has discussed how operant conditioning has taught you particular behaviors, but you can also often be on the other side of the fence and teach behaviors to others. Take a parent, for example. If a child throws a tantrum in a store because she wants a particular object and the parent allows the child to have the object in order to stop the tantrum, that child has just learned that a tantrum will be rewarded with what she wants. It's quite likely the child will throw another tantrum the next time she wants something she is not given immediately. Incidentally, the child has just provided negative reinforcement for parental toy-buying behavior, thus increasing the probability that that behavior will occur again. Perhaps you have employees working for you. How you respond to certain behaviors, such as an employee being consistently late, affects how the person responds. If you choose to ignore the situation, the person will continue the behavior because the experience of being late (getting more time in bed, etc.) is reinforcing. However, if you instead use a punisher or reinforcer in response, the behavior is more likely to change. Of course, operant conditioning works on animals as well. If you have ever tried to train your dog to sit or your cat to use the litter box, you understand quite well the effects of reinforcers and punishers.

Understanding how both classical conditioning and operant conditioning aid in a person's learning process and stimulate certain responses and behaviors will help you better understand both yourself and others.

Effective Reinforcement

When done properly, positive or negative reinforcement is much more effective than punishment in changing behavior, because it increases the desired behavior (remember, reinforcement increases behavior). Punishment stops behavior, but it doesn't teach what to do instead. If you try to change behavior by punishing everything except the correct behavior, whoever you are training will either give up and stop offering any behavior, or will rebel.

Skinner found that different reinforcement schedules produced different rates and patterns of responding. In a continuous reinforcement schedule, behaviors are reinforced each and every time they occur. As you might imagine, this type of schedule is frequently used early in the conditioning process as a new behavior is learned. Once the association has become strong enough, the schedule is usually switched to a partial reinforcement schedule. In a partial schedule, behaviors are reinforced on either a fixed schedule (after a certain number of responses or a specific period of time) or a variable schedule (after a varying number of responses or an intermittent amount of time).

If you want to keep behavior going almost indefinitely, once it is clearly learned, you can put it on an intermittent, random reinforcement schedule. This means that the behavior is reinforced (positive or negative doesn't matter) at intervals that the trainee can't predict. This works especially if the reinforcer is strong. For example, once you know how to buy and play lottery tickets, you will be reinforced at intervals you can't predict — is it the next ticket? If you win $500, how long are you going to keep buying lottery tickets, hoping for another reward? Welcome to gambling addiction.

If you want behavior to go away, and you are very certain what the reinforcers are that are maintaining behavior, you can extinguish the behavior by withholding all reinforcement when it occurs. For instance, if you continued buying lottery tickets and never, ever again won, eventually you would stop buying them. The problem with extinguishing behaviors is that just before the behavior stops, it gets worse. This is called the extinguishment burst, and it is deadly for the trainer. So if you're going to withhold all reinforcement from your screaming child who wants a toy — hold the line! Do not buy that toy when the volume increases, or otherwise reinforce the behavior. If you're going to “try to ignore” bad behavior, and end up reinforcing it by providing attention when you can't stand it anymore (because the extinction burst is torturing you), don't do it: this response will make it worse.

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