Introduction to Operant Conditioning

“A human being fashions his consequences as surely as he fashions his goods or his dwelling. Nothing that he says, thinks or does is without consequences.” Norman Cousins, 20th century editor and author.

B.F. Skinner, a noted American psychologist studied the work of Ivan Pavlov, before he set down the definition of operant conditioning. Major theorists in the development of operant conditioning for the approach to behaviorism in psychology are B.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike and John Watson.

However, operant conditioning had a long history in dog training before it was defined. A Colonel Konrad was practicing these same principles in dog training in 1910.

Skinner used scientific methodology to define operant conditioning. He used rats to observe and quantify his results with reward, punishment and reinforcement operatives.

Using the Skinner box, rats learned to press a lever to obtain food. Reward was the dispensing of food when the rat pressed the lever. Punishment consisted of removing rewards and reinforcement either added or removed an element from the existing system to elicit strong response.

You may wonder how that applies to human behavior.

In the world of human beings, we practice the principles of operant conditioning as a matter of course. We’ve been doing it for years and our parents before us used it.

We give rewards for good work, good behavior and for good performance in school. In fact, studies on behavior have been conducted in classroom settings and have set principles for organizing classrooms.

Our superiors at work, reward us using similar criteria when we receive a merit pay increase.

In some households, the child, or other family member is on a performance driven platform expecting to receive rewards based on performance. Sadly, punishment in these extreme homes sometimes means withholding of affection.

Learning, according to operant conditioning, is the result of applying consequences to behavior and in theory brings about probable responses with certain stimuli. Experts say, “This approach to behaviorism played a major role in the development of the science of psychology, especially in the United States.”

I think its wise to take into account that people do not live in, or come from, controlled environments. We’re motivated by many things in life, some from the heart, some from practical matters, but we’re all humans and desire to be treated as individuals of worth and not merely as responses to stimuli.

Our greatest thinkers in history have been those who chose to walk to their inner guide rather than take the easy path of low resistance.