Operant conditioning is used by the society to influence the behavior of various members of the society. According to Dragoi and Staddon (2000), it was developed by B. F. Skinner and involves using consequences to influence the occurrence of behavior. When using operant behavior, the desirable behavior is encouraged through rewards, while undesirable behavior is discouraged through punishments. The responses that are delivered following an action or behavior are used to influence the frequency of this behavior.
This is done through delivering a positive response following desirable behavior, and withdrawing the same after commission of undesirable behavior.
There is however a third situation which occurs, and there is no change in response after occurrence of a behavior. Giving positive response is known as reinforcing and increases frequency of behavior, while giving negative response is known as punishment and decreases frequency of behavior.
Having no change in response is known as extinction and may result in decreasing frequency of behavior. It is important to note that operant behavior is not forced, and is directed and voluntary.
There are four procedures of administering operant conditioning. The first is positive reinforcement and this as earlier discussed, involves giving positive stimulus to increase occurrence of behavior. Negative reinforcement involves removing stimulus to decrease occurrence of behavior. Positive punishment is the third procedure and it involves introduction of an aversive stimulus, for instance loud noise or shock, in order to discourage a behavior. Finally, the forth procedure is negative punishment and this involves removing favorable stimulus in order to decrease frequency of behavior.
Examples of positive reinforcement include gifts, money, and exemption from chores among others. Examples of negative reinforcement include time-out, spanking, restriction and punishment. It is important to note that for punishment to be effective in influencing behavior, it should be consistent, relatively strong and prompt. Operant conditioning is based on a skinner box, which observes the behavior of animals. It is a special cage which is sound proof and contains a rat. The cage is also built in such a way that it has a pedal or bar on one of the sides, which when pressed, makes food pellets to be released (Weiss, 2005).
When the rat moves across the cage and accidentally presses this pedal, the pellet will appear. After some time, the rat will rigorously press the pedal in order to acquire more pellets. This is the basis of operant conditioning, and pressing the pedal can be said to be the positive response. The stimulus in this case is the pellet, which encourages the increase in frequency of the desirable behavior, which is pressing the pedal. There are basically two types of reinforcement; the first is the primary reinforcement, and this is reinforcement learned by an organism through its senses and does not require to be taught.
The second is the secondary reinforcement, and this is reinforcement which is learned through experience. This type of reinforcement is taught and usually combined with the primary reinforcement in order to achieve the desirable outcomes. Principles. Operant behavior operates under three principles; the first is the assumption that positive reinforcement will lead to higher frequency of occurrence of the particular behavior and that negative reinforcement will lead to the reduction in frequency of occurrence of the particular behavior.
According to Salkind (2004), the second is that information on the conditioning should be given in small gradual steps which will enable the subjects to undergo reinforcement. Finally, the reinforcement observed on a subject is taken to be representative of the overall population. In order for operant conditioning to work effectively, the subject must link the punishment or reinforcement to the behavior, and this dictates that it is given immediately.
Performing reinforcement or giving punishment is especially important when dealing with animals or very little children, since they do not have verbal skills and this is the only way that they can link the stimulus with the response. However, when dealing with adults, it is possible to separate the behavior and consequence, due to the presence of verbal skills which can be used to explain the reason for stimulus. Criticism. There are sociologists who are of the opinion that the operant conditioning theory possesses fundamental weaknesses.
The first criticism of the theory is that it ignores the genetic make up of the subjects, whether human or animals. For instance, the theory does not analyze the effects of biological problems to the learning process. Some children possess various mental and physical disorders, which affect their learning process, and this is ignored by the theory. According to Lee (2005), another weakness relates to the assumption that positive reinforcement will lead to higher frequency of occurrence of the particular behavior, and that negative reinforcement will lead to the reduction in frequency of occurrence of the particular behavior.
This does not occur to all subjects since the society has deviants and other people who rebel authority. Such people are likely to continue with the undesirable behavior in the event that they are punished for it. Other factors such as peer pressure, economic pressures and others, may make people commit undesirable behavior regardless of the punishment given to them. It is therefore wrong to generalize the findings across the whole population without giving exceptions to the rule. There are also people who are of the opinion that positive reinforcement does not always motivate the subject to practice the desired behavior.
For instance teachers usually try to reinforce the practice of hard work in studies; with the explanation that it will provide opportunities in later life, but this does not motivate many students to study hard. Real life application of operant conditioning. In testing the effectiveness of the operant conditioning theory, I decided to visit the local kindergarten with the aim of finding out how practical the theory is. My intention was to observe the children in a class situation and observing the effect that the teacher’s reinforcement had on their behavior, in line with the operant theory.
The kindergarten program of activities runs between 8am and 1pm, with a one hour break between 10am and 11am. I had spoken to the head teacher and class teacher about my intended visit and they had no objections about the visit. The only condition I was given was that I should not interrupt the class. I arrived early that morning and sat at the back of the class. Once the students arrived, I was introduced as a visitor, and the about twenty children were excited. However, the lessons began as normal and the subject of the day was spelling. The teacher began asking the children to spell simple words such as ‘dog’ and ‘cat’.
Initially, the students did not want to answer the questions, either due to lack of concentration or the fact that they were shy due to my presence. Only two children participated in the class activities. The teacher soon realized that the students were not motivated to participate in class. She took a box of candy from her drawer and asked the class if they were interested in eating the candy. The students soon became very excited and all agreed that they wanted the candy. The teacher promised to give one candy to any student who correctly spells a word.
I suddenly became alert as I recognized this to be a form of operant conditioning. The teacher was using positive reinforcement in a bid to encourage the desired behavior. The positive reinforcement in this case was the candy while the desired outcome was participation in class. The situation also possessed another characteristic of operant conditioning. This was the fact that behavior is voluntarily chosen by the subjects. The children had the choice of not answering the question if they did not want to, and their choice was solely motivated by the desire to get the candy.
In light of these observations, I waited to see the outcome of the strategy. It did not take long, since soon, the children started fully participating in the class activities. I counted fifteen hands which were raised in an attempt to participate in class. They were literally fighting to answer the questions. Initially, the children were eager to spell the words, but most of them would end up making mistakes in spelling. However, the teacher still gave them candy and announced that she would give anyone who undertook a piece of candy.
Soon all twenty students participated in class and the situation remained the same throughout the lesson. In subsequent lessons, the children were still enthusiastic about participating in class since the same teacher taught the other lessons. This experienced proved the theory to be practical, and the candy was seen to achieve the desired behavior by students. After the end of the day’s activities, I prepared a short journal explaining the day’s events. Conclusion. The teacher used positive reinforcement in a bid to encourage the desired behavior.
The positive reinforcement in this case was the candy while the desired outcome was participation in class. This resulted in achieving the desired behavior since all students eventually participated in class activities. It is also important to note that they participated voluntarily and were not forced by anyone to do so. This small experiment proves that the operant conditioning theory works. It is however subject to debate if the theory works just as well in schools for children with special needs. This will be the objective in my future experiment.
Hour Activity Hour 1: 8am – 9am Students arrive in class. I analyze their class participation. Only two students participate in class. Hour 2: 9am – 10am Teacher notices low participation. Introduction of candy as stimulus. Increase in student participation to 15 students. Hour 3: 10am – 11am Students go for a break. I discuss my observations with the teacher. I write short notes on the observations. Hour 4: 11am – 12pm Students continue with the lessons. Teacher now gives candy for participation in class. All twenty students now actively participate in class.
Hour 5: 12pm – 1 pm Students actively participate over the entire duration. Students break for the day. Operant conditioning table. Hour Reinforcement Positive behavior Hour 1: 8am – 9am None Students behave as usual Hour 2: 9am – 10am Giving candy for correct spelling. Increase in student participation to 15 students, from previously two. Hour 3: 10am – 11am None Students behave as usual. Hour 4: 11am – 12pm Giving candy for class participation. Rise in class participation to twenty students, from previously fifteen. Hour 5: 12pm – 1 pm Maintenance of reinforcement.
Students actively participate over the entire duration until they break for the day. Operant conditioning diagram.
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