B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning
Remember when you used to get crayons and you would go through sheets of white printer paper as if it grew on trees? (Well, technically…) And then when you were done with those sheets, you’d look for the bigger canvas. And a bigger canvas. And a bigger one, until you find the biggest one in your house? You know which canvas I’m talking about. The wall. You start scribbling ferociously on the wall, writing the ABCs that you just learned, or drawing long contour lines, or perhaps even rainbow scribbles with no purpose or meaning. Then your parents come home. Your parents see this drawing and they are screaming, yelling, angry, and you’re crying. Later on in life, you look back onto the walls that you drew on and you have to ask, “Why did I draw on walls?”
Behaviorism was a popular school of though in psychology during the early 20th century. The founding principle was that only observable phenomena counted as accurate and reliable data, and this data was usually limited to only stimuli and responses. B.F. Skinner was a popular behaviorist as he came up with an idea called reinforcement, which was a type of operant conditioning (Skinner coined this term). Operant conditioning, in a nutshell, is receiving rewards or punishments (like it is so with the case of the crazy crayons) for behavior. Conditioning strengthens behavior. However, operant conditioning works on many different levels.
Going back to the crayon example, we see a type of punishment called positive punishment. Though it seems like an oxymoron, positive punishment is simply the addition of an unwanted (or aversive, if you want to be fancy) stimuli to improve conditioning. The parents scolding the child as a result of his misdeed is a positive punishment. Because the child misbehaved, he is being scolded. The scolding is necessary for positive punishment because the subject will now be aware of the consequences that may follow after a behavior that is discouraged. A way to thinking about this is that something is added (+) to the situation to make it dissuade a behavior.
Let’s say for example instead of scolding, the parents decide that the best form of punishment is to take the crayons away. The child will, undoubtedly, be sad and learn from this experience. This is a punishment, but it’s a negative punishment as something desirable is taken away as an effect of the bad behavior. The absence of the desirable object will cause people to understand that what they had done is bad and wrong. You can use the same way of memorizing this as something good is taken away (-).
However, we don’t always need another human to tell us what to do and what not to do. Let’s take eating your favorite food for example. Nobody needed to tell you what kind of food you should like, how you should eat it, and why you should like it. Absolutely not. You like crepes because of the frail texture of the dough melded perfectly with whipped cream, nutella, and bananas. Nobody was there to tell you the first time you ate crepes that this is what you like to eat. Ordinary things that we learn like this throughout our lives is a type of reinforcement of behavior called primary reinforcement.
Adding onto primary reinforcement, there is secondary reinforcement, which is essentially something that trains us in addition to the primary reinforcement. A great example would be teaching a dog how to sit (or any command really). Let’s say for instance that you want to teach a dog how to sit. Every time it sits down, you say “sit.” The dog will most definitely learn this pattern, but a second reinforcement is sometimes needed to affirm or solidify the primary reinforcement. When a dog sits when you tell it, “sit”, you will most likely say “Good boy/girl!” The dog smiles or wags its tail. Why? Because it knows that it did well, and the fact that he gets a “Good boy/girl!” after he sits successfully appeases the dog, and encourages the behavior of following the words of a human.
Just like punishments, however, reinforcement can come with both a negative and positive type.
Positive reinforcement is essentially incentives. If the dog does sit when the master says “sit”, then he will get a treat.
Negative reinforcement is a little more tricky. It’s a bit like an “if” situation in the fact that a negative stimuli would be removed if something is done. If you thought of positive punishment as adding a stimuli, you can think of negative reinforcement as subtracting a stimuli to take away something bad. For example, if your parents threatened to take your phone away if you didn’t do your homework, you would then learn that doing your homework appeases your parents and that not doing it can lead to dire consequences.
While conditioning really is a subconscious concept, there are just so many layers of what it truly is, that (almost) each and every interaction that a human has is simply just another way of reinforcement or punishment.