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Unit 4

4.3 Operant Conditioning

4 min readjune 6, 2021

drmohl

John Mohl

dalia

Dalia Savy


Operant conditioning refers to when a behavior leads to an environmental response, which affects the likelihood of the behavior happening again. 
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Image Courtesy of Verywell mind.

One of the earliest contributors to this aspect of learning was E.L. Thorndike, who found that behaviors that had a favorable outcome became stronger. In contrast, behaviors that had an unfavorable outcome became weaker. He referred to this as his Law of Effect.  
B.F. Skinner took this principle further and described different types of consequences that can occur and how they could affect the presentation of the behavior.
🎥 Watch: AP PsychologyOperant Conditioning with Pigeons

Reinforcement and Punishment

Reinforcing behavior means there is a greater likelihood that the behavior will occur again. Contrarily, punishing a behavior will create a lessened probability that the behavior will happen again.
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Image Courtesy of Verywell Mind.

Describing a consequence as "positive" does not indicate a synonym of "good," similarly with "negative" and "bad." Instead, the use of the word "positive" suggests the presence of a result, whereas "negative" indicates the absence or disappearance.
Thus, when a behavior is positively reinforced, it means something is presented (usually something pleasant) to increase the likelihood of the behavior happening again. When something is negatively reinforced, something is taken away (usually unpleasant) to encourage that behavior to happen again.
When something is positively punished, something is presented (usually unpleasant), making the behavior happen less often. In contrast, something negatively punished has something taken away (usually something pleasant) to make that behavior happen less often.
Operant Conditioning Term
Description
Outcome
Example
Positive Reinforcement
Add or increase a pleasant stimulus
Behavior is strengthened 
You get a cookie for an “A.” 🍪
Negative 
Reinforcement 
Reduce or remove an unpleasant stimulus
Behavior is strengthened
Taking painkillers (removes pain), the behavior of taking painkillers is strengthened. 
Positive Punishment
Add an unpleasant stimulus
Behavior is weakened
Give more homework for misbehavior ✍️
Negative Punishment
Reduce or remove pleasant stimulus 
Behavior is weakened
No phone 📱 after breaking curfew 

Table adapted from Open Source Textbook.

🎥 Watch: AP PsychologyPositive and Negative Punishments

Limitations to Operant Conditioning

Despite stringent behaviorists’ claims, there are limitations to classical conditioning. When presented with a puzzle 🧩, some organisms can discover the solution to the problem without proper reinforcements to guide them to the solution. This phenomenon is known as insight learning. Insight learning is sometimes referred to as the “a-ha moment” when one suddenly realizes the solution to a problem💡.
Edward Tolman found that rats did not show any noticeable improvement in getting through a maze in the absence of reinforcement. However, when reinforcement was provided, he found a marked decrease in the time needed to finish the maze, suggesting that the rats knew the solution to the maze but did not express it behaviorally, meaning that they had a cognitive map of the maze. Tolman called this latent learning⏳.
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Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not all types of stimuli will necessarily be conditioned with all types of responses. John Garcia found that people are more readily predisposed to be conditioned to taste if the corresponding response is internal. For example, the behavioral response of nausea 🤢 is more likely to be conditioned to a taste stimulus than an external stimulus, such as a sound 🔊 .
Other research has shown that cognitive interpretations of conditioning also play a role. If a person believes that a particular stimulus, as opposed to the intended stimulus, causes the conditioning, then the stimulus designed to produce the conditioning will not occur.

Reinforcement Schedules

The probability of successful operative conditioning depends upon how the reinforcements are presented.
When something is produced on a fixed schedule, reinforcement occurs in a predictable (but not continuous) pattern. One knows when the subsequent reinforcement will be given, assuming behaviors are performed. When reinforcement is presented on a variable schedule, it means that reinforcement is not predictable, and it is not apparent when the next reinforcement will exactly occur. 
When reinforcement is given on an interval schedule, it means a certain amount of time must pass by, assuming the behavior is performed before reinforcement is given. When reinforcement is given on a ratio schedule, a certain number of behaviors must be performed before the reinforcement is provided. 
Altogether, this makes four different types of schedules of reinforcement. 
Reinforcement 
Schedule
Explanation 
Real World Example 
Fixed Ratio
Rewarded after a specific number of responses #️⃣
You get paid $100 bucks after writing two columns. 
Variable Ratio
Rewarded after an average but unpredictable number of responses 
Put money in a slot machine.  It pays out after several plays, but the player is uncertain of the number because it varies. 
Fixed Interval 
Rewarded after a set amount of time has elapsed 📅
People who earn a monthly salary
Variable Interval 
Rewarded after an average but unpredictable amount of time has elapsed
Person checks email messages and is rewarded with a message at varying times.  

Table adapted from Open Source Textbook.

🎥Watch: AP PsychologyOperant Conditioning

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