Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, is a method of learning that employs punishments and rewards for behavior. In this method, a link is established between a behavior and a consequence (whether positive or negative) for that behavior.
For example, when a monkey presses a button when a LED is on, he receives a banana as a reward. When he presses the button when the LED is off, he receives a mild electric shock. As a result, he learns to press the button when the LED is on and avoids it when the LED is off. Actually, the monkey forms a link between the behavior (press the button when LED lights up) and the consequences (get a banana).
Operant conditioning was first thoroughly studied by an American psychologist Edward Lee Thorndike in the late 19th century. He advanced a psychology principle called the law of effect.
As per the law, actions that result in favorable outcomes have a higher probability of being repeated, while those followed by unfavorable outcomes are less likely to be repeated.
However, it was Burrhus Frederic Skinner who theorized that an individual’s actions and the consequences of these actions could be used to understand learning and human behavior. He coined the term ‘operant conditioning.’
Operant conditioning is a modified (better) version of the law of effect and relies on an equally simple premise. Actions followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and are more likely to be repeated in the future. Similarly, actions that are followed by punishment are weakened and are less likely to be repeated.
There are four key elements in operant conditioning:
- Positive reinforcement occurs when a response is rewarding. It increases the frequency of that response (behavior).
- Negative reinforcement occurs when a response is followed by the removal of an unfavorable event, thereby increasing the frequency of the original behavior.
- Positive punishment occurs when a response is followed by an unfavorable outcome. It decreases the frequency of that response (behavior).
- Negative punishment occurs when a response is followed by the removal of a favorable outcome, thereby reducing the original behavior’s frequency.
Another important (but often ignored) consequence is extinction, which occurs when a response that had previously been reinforced/punished is no longer effective. For instance, if you stop rewarding monkey with a banana every time he presses a button, he will press the button less often and eventually stop. In this case, the button pressing would be said to be ‘extinguished.’
Many things we do are either directly or indirectly influenced by operant conditioning. To better explain this phenomenon, we have gathered some of the best examples of operant conditioning that people see in everyday life.
14. A Student Is Applauded During A Debate
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Positive Reinforcer: Clapping, cheering, and offering praise.
Negative Reinforcer: Students getting laughed at for making efforts.
Debates and public speaking activities are often organized in schools to improve the communication skills of students. Consider a scenario where a student participates in a debate for the first time.
If he is applauded by teachers and peers, he will be encouraged to participate in similar activities in the future. However, if people make fun of his efforts, he may develop stage fright or grow a disliking for such activities.
13. Getting Incentives and Bonus
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Positive Reinforcer: Performance bonus, travel opportunities, increased lunch break.
The concept of positive reinforcement is extensively used in workplaces. The company often rewards workers for encouraging productivity and motivation. While it’s a great thing to do, the reward doesn’t have to be on a big scale. A specific note like “thank you for doing an exceptional job on this project” serves as an everyday form of positive reinforcement.
The hedge fund manager, for example, receives an incentive fee if a fund performs well over a certain period. The fee amount is usually based on the net realized or unrealized gains. Such incentives encourage managers to take outsized risks to increase returns.
12. Discounts and Loyalty Programs
Positive Reinforcer: Sessional discounts, small gestures such as follow-up emails.
For over centuries, brands have been using positive reinforcement as a way to increase repeat purchases, average order values, and to build strong connections with their customers.
Many companies offer special discounts and exclusive experiences to encourage customers to explore more of their brands. Some provide excellent customer supports and loyalty programs to sustain growth in the long term.
11. Training A Dog To Sit
Animal trainers were applying the practices of operant conditioning long before the concept was named and studied. If you are a pet owner, you might have used it too.
For example, if you ask a dog to sit, and he sits within five seconds, you give him a treat. If he doesn’t, he gets nothing. Repeat this several times, and he will learn to sit whenever you ask (his behavior is reinforced). It’s a very effective way to train dogs and other animals.
10. Constant Reminders To Upgrade Computer Software
Negative Reinforcer: Annoying software update notifications
Much like positive reinforcers, negative reinforcers also increase the occurrence of specific behavior. However, rather than adding a positive stimulus, it works by removing a negative condition that causes annoyance and discomfort.
The notifications you get to update the software is one of the perfect examples of negative reinforcement. Once you upgrade the software, the notification is gone. There is also a high probability that you will upgrade preemptively in the future to avoid such annoying notifications in the first place.
9. Services With Frequent Advertisements
Negative Reinforcer: Short commercials at regular intervals.
Many online services utilize negative reinforcement to increase their subscribers. For example, Spotify allows users to listen to music for free with frequent ads. Peacock, a video streaming platform, allows users to watch popular TV shows and movies for free with short commercials.
This prompts users to upgrade to a premium plan (for uninterrupted service) without preventing them from accessing the service.
8. Putting Headphones To Mask The Noise
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Suppose there is a party going on next door and you have an exam tomorrow. You can’t concentrate due to the loud music, so you put on a noise-canceling headphone. It’s a great way to decrease unpleasant sounds.
Some people often use wireless Bluetooth headphones to block out external noise such as snoring, barking, and other bedtime distractions. In such cases, putting on headphones helps you remove the negative/unpleasant conditions.
7. Parents Avoiding Childs Tantrums
Negative Reinforcer: Child’s crying and whining.
Most parents use negative reinforcement unintentionally. For example, the father tells a toddler to stop playing and go to bed, which the toddler hates. The toddler then whines, protests, and throws a tantrum. The father gives in allows the child to play to stop the tantrum.
In this case, the child’s crying and whining is an aversive stimulus for the father. When he gives in, the aversive stimulus goes away. This reinforces the father’s giving-in behavior. At the same time, going to bed is an aversive stimulus for the toddler. He throws tantrums to avoid this, which reinforces the tantrum-throwing behavior. This way, reinforcement occurs for both father and child without them knowing it.
6. Insulting Students For Misbehaviors
Positive Punishment: Teacher insults a student in front of the whole class.
A student who often comes late to the class gets insulted by the teacher in front of the whole class. To avoid such embarrassment in the future, he starts arriving on time.
Such punishments have also proven effective in stopping students’ misbehaviors like disruptive talking, unnecessarily interfering with teaching activities, harassing classmates, and rudeness to a teacher.
5. Taking Away The Teenager’s Phone
Negative Punishment: Limit children’s internet usage or take away their smartphone.
Some parents use negative punishment to alter the behavior of teenagers. For example, if a boy doesn’t clean up his entire room every Sunday, his parents take away his phone for two days.
In this case, the phone, which is being taken away, acts as a positive stimulus for the boy. Punishing them by limiting their internet-usage time or outdoor activities might also help achieve the same results.
4. Getting Fine For An Offense
Negative Punishment: Money as a penalty.
Various types of fines, such as speeding tickets or littering fines, are often presented as examples of the operant conditioning process. If you get fined for driving over the speed limit, that would be the case of the negative punishment, where something is taken away from you after a behavior.
The government takes a specific amount as a penalty with the apparent intent of reducing speeding behavior. To avoid such fines, people continue to follow the rules.
3. Rewards In Video Games
Positive Reinforcement: Gain more points and unlock the next levels.
Most video games are designed around a compulsion loop, adding positive reinforcement through a variable rate schedule to keep the player engaged. This often leads to video game addiction.
In almost all games, players are required to complete a set of tasks and overcome obstacles. Once they achieve it, extra points are rewarded and more challenging levels are unlocked. This encourages players to keep playing and strive to reach the next level. However, if they make obstacles too hard, players will eventually lose interest.
2. Verbal Reprimand
Positive Punishment: Scolding and warning.
An engineer at a tech company is found watching Netflix during working hours instead of developing the app. The project manager calls him into his office and gives the engineer a verbal scolding.
In the verbal reprimand, the manager might discuss policies and consequences that will happen if the engineer is caught again. The engineer will remember the scolding and won’t open Netflix in the office.
1. Walking Barefoot On Hot Pavement
Positive Punishment: Pain and thermal burns.
Natural consequences are the best form of punishment because they teach you about life. Consider a simple example of a hot asphalt surface. In summer, asphalt pavement absorbs a lot of heat, and its temperature can easily reach over 160°F.
If a barefoot person walks onto this hot pavement, he might get some serious burn after one minute of skin contact. The pain he feels acts as an unpleasant stimulus, which reduces the future likelihood of the person walking barefoot on hot pavement.