Monday 27 February 2017

What is “Operant Conditioning”?

Operant Conditioning

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (commonly known as B. F. Skinner) had coined the term of “operant conditioning”. Skinner, who was the behaviorist in his approach, was born in the United States of America on 20th March 1904 and died on 18th August 1990. He had worked at Harvard University as the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology.

The term “operant conditioning” (also called instrumental conditioning) refers to the learning in which voluntary behavior is strengthened or weakened by consequences or antecedents.

Here, it is worth mentioning that “antecedents” are the events that precede a behavior or action, whereas “consequences” are the events that follow an action or behavior.

Skinner believed that the principles of classical conditioning account for only a small proportion of learned behaviors. According to him, many human behaviors are operants, and not respondents. Respondents are elicited by particular stimuli such as Pavlov bell.

In a respondent situation, an individual learns merely by being in the situation and responding to it. Skinner argued that not all behavior is of this type. Most of human behavior is operant behavior, which is emitted, not elicited.

Before moving ahead with operant conditioning, let us discuss in brief about classical conditioning in order to have concept clarity.

Classical conditioning describes only how existing behaviors might be paired with new stimuli; however, it does not explain how new operant behaviors are acquired.

In classical conditioning, behavior (such as response or action) is simply a word for what a person does in a particular situation. It lies between the antecedents and consequences.

There is a relationship in antecedents, behavior, and consequence.

Here, “A” stands for antecedents; “B” stands for behaviors; and “C” stands for consequences.

Now, let’s talk about the “operant conditioning”.

During the period of 1930s, B. F. Skinner had started his experiments on “operant conditioning” (also called instrumental conditioning).

The operant conditioning is a type of learning in which the strength of a behavior is modified by the behavior’s consequences (such as reward or punishment); in which the behavior is controlled by antecedents.

Skinner wanted to study reinforced responding without breaking the experiments in discrete trials. In order to study operant conditioning, Skinner had invented the operant conditioning chamber, popularly known as the Skinner box or Operant Chamber.

An operant chamber is a simple box with device at one end that can be worked by the animal in the box. For rats, cats, and monkeys, the device is a lever, and for pigeon the device is a small panel (called a key) which can be pecked.

The lever and the key are switches that activate when positive reinforcement is being used. Thus, positive reinforcement is contingent upon pressing a lever or pecking a key.

The first step in the operant conditioning of a hungry rat is to get food pellets when they are delivered by the experimenter who operates the pellet.

The pellets are delivered one by one; after some that the rate eats each pellet as soon as it drops. Then, the experimenter stops releasing the pellets and the rat is left alone in the Skinner box with the lever which will release the pellets.

After an initial period of inactivity, the hungry rat begins to explore the box. Finally, the rat presses the level accidentally. A pellet of food is released, i.e. the reinforcement is contingent upon pressing the lever.

After eating the food pellet, the rat continues exploring and after a while, it presses the lever again, and again the pellet is released, then after it presses the lever the third time.

Usually, after the fourth and fifth press, the rat begins to press the lever more rapidly and operant behavior is developed.  B.F. Skinner, who had founded a school of experimental research psychology (called the “experimental analysis of behavior”), had preferred the term reinforcement to reward.

According to Skinner, reward is a subjective interpretation of behavior which is associated with pleasurable event, whereas reinforcement is simply defined as an effect that increases the probability of a response.

Thus, the experiment on operant conditioning shows that operant behavior can be altered by changes in the antecedents, the consequences, or both.