Operant conditioning is a theory which is used to explain how we learn new behaviours. Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behaviour and a consequence. The theory was proposed by Skinner in 1938.

Learning through operant conditioning can be applied to criminal activity. Offenders can learn to become involved in crime in various ways.

Skinner is thought of as being the father of Operant Conditioning, but his work was based on Thorndike’s law of effect from 1898. According to this Thorndike, behaviours that are followed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated. Behaviours that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.

Skinner uses the term reinforcement in his theory of learning. Behaviour which is reinforced tends to be repeated. Behaviour which is not reinforced tends to die out-or be extinguished.

Like many psychologists, Skinner studied operant conditioning by conducting experiments using animals which he placed in a ‘Skinner Box’. Skinner identified three types of responses from external stimuli. The first is neutral. This is where responses from the environment neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behaviour being repeated. The second is reinforces. These are r Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behaviour being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative. The third is Punisher responses. These are responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated. Punishment weakens behaviour.

We can all think of examples of how our behaviour has been affected by reinforcers and punishers. As a child, you probably tried out many behaviours and learned from their consequences.

For example, if you tried smoking at school, and the consequence was that you got in with the crowd you always wanted to hang out with, and you would have been positively reinforced and would be likely to repeat the behaviour. In other words, the behaviour would have been rewarded. If, however, the main consequence was that you were caught, and your parents became involved you would likely to have been punished, and you would then be much less likely to smoke now.

Reinforcement of behaviours can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. For example, if your parents gave you £5 each time you complete your chores you will be more likely to repeat this behaviour in the future, and so strengthening the behaviour of completing your tasks.
Negative Reinforcement means that unpleasant consequences are removed and so strengthens behaviour. Negative reinforcement strengthens behaviour because it stops or removes an unpleasant experience. For example, if you do not complete your homework, you have to give your parents £5. You will complete your tasks to avoid paying £5, and so strengthens the behaviour of completing your homework.

This would be similar to you touching an electric fence and getting a shock. If you jumped and accidentally hit the off switch on the floor beside the fence, then next time you wanted to pass the fence you would go straight to the off switch.

Punishment weakens particular behaviours. Punishment is defined as the opposite of reinforcement since it is designed to weaken or eliminate a response rather than increase it. It is an aversive event that decreases the behaviour that it follows.
Like reinforcement, punishment can work either by directly applying an unpleasant stimulus like a shock after a response or by removing a potentially rewarding stimulus, for instance, deducting someone’s pocket money to punish undesirable behaviour. It is not always easy to distinguish between punishment and negative reinforcement.

There are some problems with using punishment though. For example, punished behaviour is not forgotten, it’s suppressed. The behaviour returns when punishment is no longer present. Punishments can cause increased aggression showing that aggression is a way of dealing with problems. Punishments do not necessarily guide the subject toward the desired behaviour – reinforcement tells you what to do, punishment only tells you what not to do.

We can learn new ways of doing things with the various reinforcers, but we can also forget or fail to keep up with the behaviour if the reinforcers are not present. This is response and extinction.

If an animal/human is positively reinforced every time a specific behaviour occurs, e.g., every time a lever is pressed a pellet is delivered, and then food delivery is shut off. The response rate is SLOW. The extinction rate is FAST. The animal or human is slow to learn and will quickly stop doing the new behaviour as soon as the reinforcer is taken away. A good example of this would be to ask you how many days you would go into work if they stopped paying you?

If a behaviour is reinforced only after the behaviour occurs a specified number of times. e.g., one reinforcement is given after every so many correct responses, e.g., after every 5th response. For example, a child receives a star for every five words spelt correctly. The response rate is FAST meaning they would learn it quickly. The extinction rate is MEDIUM meaning that they would carry on doing it for a little while to see if they get the reward.

If the behaviour was reinforced after a fixed time providing at least one correct response has been made. An example is being paid by the hour. Another example would be every 15 minutes (half-hour, hour, etc.) a pellet is delivered (providing at least one lever press has been made) then food delivery is shut off. The response rate is MEDIUM so it would take a little longer to learn the new behaviour. The extinction rate is MEDIUM meaning they would carry on for a moderate length of time to see if a reward was coming.

If a behaviour is reinforced after an unpredictable number of times. For example, gambling or fishing. The response rate is FAST meaning we pick up the new behaviour fairly quickly. The extinction rate is SLOW meaning that very hard to extinguish the new behaviour because they can’t predict when the reward or reinforce is coming.

Finally, if a reinforcer was given after an unpredictable length of time as long as one correct response or behaviour was done within that time. The response rate is FAST meaning we would be quick to complete the new behaviour. The extinction rate is SLOW meaning the behaviour would carry on for a substantial length of time because of the unpredictability of the reinforcement.

Changing behaviour or building new behaviours takes time. Reinforcement or punishments need to be used consistently over a prolonged period.

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