The ability of human beings and animals to adapt to their environment has ensured their continued existence. Adaptation results from learning to associate events and conditions with consequences. Through learning, organisms gain experience about those conditions, situations, and behaviors which are favorable to survival and which are not. The basic mechanism by which learning occurs has not changed. B. F. Skinner demonstrated this mechanism through experiments with a boxed rat (Feldman 184). His ideas, referred to as operant conditioning and consisting of the principles of reinforcement and punishment, are as relevant and useful today as when the findings were initially made.
Positive reinforcement refers to actions taken to increase the frequency of a preceding behavior (Feldman 186). It involves presenting something pleasurable, such as food, after a desirable response in order to improve the chances of obtaining the same response in future (Myers 304). An example is buying a child a Play Station when he or she scores an A in Math. Positive reinforcement has widespread application in both social and work life. Certain employee behavior such as meeting a deadline or hitting a target can be positively reinforced with a bonus or a promotion.
Negative reinforcement refers to the removal of an unpleasant stimulus or condition in an organism’s environment to strengthen a preceding behavior (Passer and Smith 224). When a child touches a hot substance, withdrawing their hand swiftly will avert burns. The hot substance is the negative reinforcer that increases the likelihood of not touching fire again.
Unlike reinforcement, which increases the likelihood of reproducing a response, punishment decreases the repetition of a behavior (Passer and Smith 224). It refers either to the act of removing a pleasant stimulus from the organism’s environment or subjecting the organism to an unpleasant stimulus. For example, confiscating a child’s iPod is punishment intended to eliminate the child’s behavior of not doing her chores. This form of punishment is known as negative punishment. In real life, negative punishment can be witnessed in the sentencing of a criminal. Taking away one’s freedoms and pleasures following an undesirable behavior will weaken such behaviors in future. Cutting an employee’s pay or demoting him or her is another example of negative reinforcement. Another form of punishment is positive punishment, which entails the application of an unpleasant stimulus to an organism. Corporal punishment is an example.
Debate is ongoing about the effectiveness of reinforcers and punishments (Gneezy, Meier, and Rey-Biel 1). The contention is that the behavior being reinforced can easily disappear when reinforcement is stopped. Punishment, which may produce noticeable results after it is administered, may become counterproductive in future. Spanking a child, for example, may make them stop the behavior being punished. However, the child may grow up thinking that spanking and other forms of physical aggression are acceptable adult behaviors.
Shaping is a process by which organisms learn complex behaviors that do not occur naturally (Feldman, 2011). Since the desired behavior is complex, no organism can master it at once. Close approximations of the desired behavior are rewarded progressively such that only the exact desired behavior is rewarded in the end. For example, when training a person to play darts, he can be rewarded initially for hitting within the circle. Subsequently, the trainee is rewarded only if she hits closer to the bull’s eye. This technique is useful in training both humans and animals. For example, it can be used to train dolphins to save drowning swimmers, or to train dogs to guide the visually impaired. Shaping is suitable when a skill needs to be developed over time.
Feldman, Robert, S. Understanding Psychology. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2011. Print
Gneezy Uri, Meier Stephan, and Rey-Beil Pedro. “When and Why Incentives (Don't) Work to Modify Behavior.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, 25.4 (Fall 2011): 191-209. Print
Myers, David, G. Psychology. New York: Worth, 2010. Print
Passer, Michael, W. and Smith, Ronald, E. Psychology: The Science of Mind and Behavior. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2009. Print