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Application of Operant Conditioning

According to B.F.Skinner, in order to effectively understand a certain behavior, it’s advisable to look at the causes of an action and the consequences it produces. This is what he referred to as operant conditioning (Skinner, 1959). Though Skinner is credited for the immense contribution towards operant conditioning, his work was based on the ideas of Thorndike’s law of effect (Thorndike, 1901). Skinner introduced a new concept in the law of effect referred to as reinforcement. A reinforced behavior tends to be repeated or strengthened while the one that is not reinforced tends to be forgotten or weakened. The whole concept on operant conditioning is about changing the behavior of an organism through reinforcement. There are three major categories reinforcement factors. First, is the neutral operant. Second, are the reinforcers. Finally, are punishers.

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How can the principles of operant conditioning be Applied to changing behavior?

The principles of operant conditioning can be applied to change the behavior of a human being or an animal. This works under different premises. An individual can either be punished or reinforced to change the current behavior. There is positive and negative reinforcement. In the same way, there is also positive and negative punishment. In positive reinforcement, a behavior is accompanied by a reward to encourage its continuity(Skinner,1938). On the other hand, negative reinforcement occurs when a   behavior is accompanied by the removal of an aversive stimulus. This tends to increase the frequency of that behavior. In punishment, positive punishment refers to the introduction of a stimulus that results to less frequency of that behavior happning. Negative punishment refers to the situation in which a specific action or response is accompanied by the removal of a stimulus thus discouraging that action from happening once again. For example, an adult can take away a toy from a child to discourage them from misbehaving. Therefore, behavior tends to change if there is an induced punishment or rewards on a system (Skinner, 1938). Most of the times, it is time sensitive in that changes are likely to occur in pre-determined time intervals.

How does reinforcement contribute to behavior change?

Positive reinforcement tends to increase the frequency of occurrence of a behavior. For instance, giving an individual a reward as a result of portraying a desirable behavior (Skinner, 1959).  On the other hand, negative reinforcement takes place when there is withdrawal of an aversive stimulus resulting into discouraging of that behavior.

Using the operant conditioning principle of reinforcement to train a bird to peck at a button.

In this experiment of a bird pecking a button, the bird tends to peck the button more times because it is aware of the fact that every time it pecks, food is provided. The bird ensures that it pecks the button because doing so results to provision of food. To maintain the availability of food therefore, the bird has to peck the button continuously. The graph during the first half of the experiment is a bit steep showing that the reinforcer, in this case, provision of food, tends to make the bird increase the rate of pecking the button.

However, during the second haalf of the experiment, the bird tends to make less pecks per unit time because the reinforce has been withdrawn. The graph is gradual as compared to the steep one during the first half.  This means that the positive reinforcement, in this case, provision of food, plays a significant role in influencing the behavior of the bird, to peck the button even more( Skinner,1938). The behavior that was conditioned here is button pecking.  Food was used to reinforce the behavior. By giving the bird food, it continues to peck the button.

This kind of a behavior can also be used to change the behavior of children.  For instance, a child can be given a gift by the teacher every time he/she finishes his/her homework. This will tend to increase the level of commitment to do assignment in the child. If the reward is withdrawn, they might be reluctant to be committed as they did.

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In an experiment between two pigeons, there is a small ball where the two birds have been conditioned to attempt to peck it once it comes on its side. As the birds peck the balls, it rolls on the opponent’s side and the process is repeated. A stimulus is induced in the birds and they gain the urge to peck the ball. After being reinforced, the birds can now play the ball as each pecks when it comes on its side (Skinner, 1938).

A stimulus given to the bird becomes the source of reinforcement. A graph drawn can be able to indicate the strength or the level of response. If for instance the birds are exposed to two different conditions or substances, they will respond to it differently.  Those children who are lazy in doing their homework will be changed if they are given rewards every time they finish their assignments.

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