Learning and training a person or animal to behave a certain way can sometimes be tricky. Depending on the subject, mere instruction is not enough. At times the subject may require added motivation to learn or accept the training. In order to handle situation such as these, psychologists came up with what is known as operant conditioning, a system of rewards and punishments that allow the subject to be trained behaviorally.
Operant conditioning is a simple concept to understand. It is a learning technique, occurring through the practice of rewards and punishments for certain behaviors. Operant conditioning allows the subject to associate good behaviors with treats, and bad behaviors with consequences. Originally named by B.F. Skinner, also known for his work in Educational learning theories, you may hear it called Skinnerian conditioning or instrumental conditioning as well. Skinner was a behaviorist, and he believed that internal motivations did not explain behaviors, but that observable, external motivations did (2012). He chose the word “operant” because it refers to active behaviors operating in the environment that generate any consequence. Literally, the name he gave his conditioning explained how each of us were trained into using new behaviors every day.
The theory behind operant conditioning was easy. When a person received positive reinforcement for something, they begin to associate that behavior with that reinforcement and believe the behavior to be good. This would cause the person to repeat that behavior indefinitely. However, if the person received negative reinforcement for something they had done, they would associate that behavior with the negative consequence (2012). The theory stated that this would eventually make them stop behaving in a negative way in order to avoid the consequence. Essentially, in order to keep a person from misbehaving you punish them with something bad and when they behave, you reward them with something good.
Many do not understand that there is a difference between reinforcement and punishment. These two concepts are not as easily understood as the concept of operant conditioning itself. There is positive/negative reinforcement, and positive/negative punishment. Reinforcement and punishment are easily defined: reinforcement encourages behavior while punishment discourages behavior. Reinforcement presents a motivating stimulus after a desired behavior has been exhibited. This will make the behavior more likely to continue occurring. For instance, after a child cleans up their toys, which is the behavior, a parent can offer praise, the positive reinforcement. An example of negative reinforcement might be that the child will clean up his toys in order to avoid his parent’s reprimands. A negative reinforcement would then be for the mother to reprimand the child in order to avoid future actions like this. Negative and positive punishments are the difficult concept to grasp, as a part of operant conditioning (2012). Normally people hear punishments and believe something bad it taking place but this is not the case. It means that consequences will follow a behavior directly in hopes of decreasing its frequency. Stimulus may be added. An example of positive punishment might be that the child is unaware that he is supposed to pick up his toys. Therefore he leaves them out and is immediately reprimanded by his parents in an effort to decrease this behavior in the future. Negative punishment requires that a stimulus be removed to prevent behaviors. For instance if the child leaves their toys out, the toy they enjoy playing with the most will be taken away until they learn to clean up after themselves. All parts of negative and positive reinforcement and punishment are necessary to operant conditioning.
Negative punishment is the most effective reinforcement in operant conditioning. The negative and positive reinforcements are effective but may not get the point across to an individual. Verbal cues do not always have the same impact as actions. Also, as stated by studies in an article entitled “Punishment Insensitivity and Impaired Reinforcement Learning in Preschoolers” published in Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, positive reinforcements such as, “Good job,” and, “Way to go,” lose their meaning as a child grows up. Positive punishment, while also effective, is lacking, only offering more verbal cues. Negative punishment, however, allows the disciplinarian to get a firm point across by withholding something in order to show that undesirable behavior will not be tolerated. The individual who disobeyed the rules must behave in order to earn back what was taken, thus creating an effective reward system. It is far less likely that they will commit the same offense again and risk losing something that they enjoy. This form of reinforcement also presents the opportunity to remove punishment all together. As the subject learns how to behave, there are fewer instances where they need to be taught lessons. As a result, there are fewer punishments received. Not only does the individual learn how to behave but they are punished less in the process, until finally they behave correctly all the time and there is no need for punishment at all.
A scenario in which I would apply operant conditioning would concern troubled school children. Children struggling in learn academic material or children who have a difficult life at home sometimes act out in an educational setting. This is unacceptable and sets a bad example for the other students. Because of this it must be dealt with appropriately, but also quickly. Because they set a bad standard for behavior, disciplinarians must set a high standard for punishment. For example, if a troubled student continuously acted out in class by disrupting other students, talking back to the teacher, and making rude comments, I would begin withholding privileges that student would otherwise enjoy freely until he or she began to behave better. This would show the student that this behavior was unacceptable and that they needed to accept the rules. This form of negative punishment would also show the student’s classmates that just because one student breaks the rules it does not mean it will go unnoticed. Hopefully operant conditioning would shape the child’s behavior for the better.
My schedule of reinforcement would be very rigorous, as I do not tolerate misbehaving. The child would have two chances to behave. If he or she did not, privileges such as recess and lunch with classmates would be revoked. Instead of this free time the student would be sent to the school office to help file papers or clean. This would occur every time the behavior occurred to ensure that the child understood it was wrong. Because we are talking about school-aged children, I believe it would be sufficient to begin giving back privileges, one at a time, after each full day of good behavior.
In sum, operant conditioning is a very important part of behavioral psychology. Many believe it is only about positive and negative reinforcement. Little is commonly understood about positive and negative punishment, or the positive results it can yield. While it sounds like a bad thing, with the right schedule and the correct amount of authority, positive and negative punishment can prove to be useful. The same can be said about positive and negative reinforcement.
Briggs-Gowan, M. J., Nichols, S. R., Voss, J., Zobel, E., Carter, A. S., McCarthy, K. J., . . . Wakschlag, L. S. (2014). Punishment insensitivity and impaired reinforcement learning in preschoolers. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 154-161.
Kazdin, A. E. (2012). Behavior Modification in Applied Settings: Seventh Edition. Portland: Waveland Press.
Miltenberger, R. (2012). Behavior Modification: Principles and Procedures. Independence: Cengage Learning.