Psychology Operant Conditioning

Ever wonder how dolphins or show dogs do tricks? Many animal behaviorists train them using a form of operant conditioning. This type of learning relies on the power of consequence.

Ever wonder when you go to a marine park, how trainers get the dolphins to do amazing tricks? Many marine parks and animal trainers use a technique known as operant

conditioning to teach animals to do amazing behaviors.

Operant conditioning has also been called instrumental conditioning or positive reinforcement. What exactly is operant conditioning? It is a form of learning in which

an animal or human learns an association between a behavior and a significant event. Every time your dog sits and you give him a treat, the dog learns that sitting is good and good things will come of it. This type of learning was coined by psychologist B.F. Skinner who did most of his research with rats. It is called operant conditioning because the subject's behavior is instrumental in making something happen. For example a rat can be taught to press a lever, every time the rat presses the lever food will come. It is the rat's behavior of pressing the bar that releases the food pellet.

An operant learning sequence has three components: an antecedent, a behavior and a consequence. The antecedent is the cue or command that signals an animal to perform a behavior. When you want your dog to sit, you may give it a hand signal or tell it verbally to sit. This is the antecedent. The behavior is what the subject does. The

dog's sitting or not sitting is what we call the behavior. The consequence is what happens after the behavior occurs, be it reward or punishment.

Operant learning is coined by a law known as Thorndike's Law of Effect. This law states that if a consequence is pleasant, the preceding behavior will become more frequent, and if a consequence is unpleasant the behavior becomes less likely to occur. If your dog sits and you give him a treat, the dog likes the consequence so the behavior of sitting will occur more frequently.

The power of consequence is what makes operant conditioning so successful. If your dog behaves in a certain way and you present a pleasant thing, you will have made it more likely that your dog will perform that behavior in the future. This is called positive reinforcement. If your dog behaves in a certain way and you present an unpleasant thing, you have made it less likely that your dog will behave that way again. This is called positive punishment. Keep in mind that positive means giving the subject something, either a pleasant thing or a negative thing. If your dog behaves in a certain way and you remove a pleasant thing, you will have made it less likely that your dog will behave that way again. This is negative punishment. If your dog behaves in a certain way and you remove an unpleasant thing, you will have made it more likely that your dog will repeat the behavior. This is called negative reinforcement. It can be very confusing. Just remember that when you use positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement the behavior increases. When you use punishment, either positive or negative the behavior will decrease if not diminish.

Let's use a dog jumping up as an example. Suppose your dog jumps on a friend. If that person makes a fuss over the dog, petting and talking to the dog as it is jumping up, the dog is likely to repeat the behavior of jumping up, because it enjoys the petting and attention. This is positive reinforcement. The dog was presented with attention which is a positive thing and thus he has been reinforced for jumping up. Let's say that instead your friend knees the dog in the chest when he jumps up. The dog will be less likely to jump up, this is known as positive punishment. The friend presented something unpleasant or pain to the dog. If your friend turns his back on the dog when the dog jumps up, this is what we call negative punishment. The friend removed something pleasant, attention, to the dog. If the friend was roughly shaking the dog and stopped when the dog jumped up, the jumping up is more likely to occur. This is called negative reinforcement because the friend removed something unpleasant, the shaking.

Let us use another example with rats. Suppose every time a rat presses a lever it receives a food pellet. This in itself is positive reinforcement. The rat is more likely to press the lever in the future because it has been positively reinforced for the behavior. If the rat pressed the lever and received a shock, the rat will be less likely to press the lever in the future. This is what we mean by positive punishment. The rat is performing a behavior and as a result received an unpleasant consequence. If the rat has been trained that lever presses yield a food pellet, and then all of a sudden the rat presses the lever and no food pellet comes, we have applied negative punishment. The rat will be less likely to press the lever because the pleasant thing or the food pellet has been removed. If the rat has been trained that every time he presses the lever he gets shocked, and presses the lever and doesn't get shocked, the rat will be more likely to press the lever again. This is what we mean by negative reinforcement. It increases the behavior because we are removing something unpleasant, the shock.

Operant conditioning proceeds in a systematic fashion. You must first determine the behavior you want to work on. You must deliver the consequence that will either increase or decrease the frequency of the behavior. Third, you must introduce the commands or cues you wish to elicit the behavior It is rare that a trainer use positive reinforcement without also using negative punishment. If you are training your dog to sit using treats to reward the correct behavior(positive reinforcement), and withhold treats when it doesn't sit, you are inadvertently using negative punishment because you are removing pleasant thing, food.

Operant conditioning has been a very successful tool in training all sorts of animals such as dolphins, dogs, and even horses. Human beings are also products of this

type of conditioning. Think of the power of consequence and how we have been reinforced or punished for a particular behavior. If we were good in the grocery store our

parents may have let us have a candy bar at the end of the shopping trip. The behavior was positively reinforced creating a pattern that would make our simple gesture of being good more likely to occur. You could go on forever with the examples. At some point almost every living being is inadvertently a product of operant conditioning.

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