Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning forms the premise that behaviours are shaped by their consequences. It is fundamentally learned behaviour, formulated by responses to positive or negative motivations; no behaviour is without consequence, enjoyable or bad. It is this application of consequences that connects certain responses to particular stimuli (Huitt & Hummel, 1997). There are two types of consequences associated with this conditioning: reinforcement, which increases the likelihood of repetitive behaviour, and punishment which decreases the probability of the undesirable actions (Smallbone, 2007, as cited in Hayes & Prenzler, 2007).

One of the main principles of operant conditioning is reinforcement. There are two forms of consequences: reinforcement and punishment. These can be either positive or negative. Primary positive reinforcement involves the introduction of a stimulus, for example a reward or treat, for good behaviour. This serves to increase the chance of good behaviour. Secondary reinforcements, such as an encouraging verbal acknowledgment can further strengthen this principle (Bernstein, Penner, Clarke-Stewart & Roy, 2006).

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Negative reinforcement is through the removal of a negative stimulus after the desired response is shown. This is expected to increase the chances of required behaviour being repeated. An example of this is a husband being nagged by his wife to mow the lawn, and after he completed this chore the nagging cease, the nagging being the negative stimulus. Positive punishment is when a negative stimulus is introduced after undesirable behaviour, for example, a naughty child being sent to their room for misbehaving. This is intended to decrease unfavourable behaviour.

Negative punishment is the removal of a pleasant stimulus after undesirable behaviour, as in taking a favourite toy away after a tantrum, therefore decreasing the likelihood of repetitive behaviour. Even though operant conditioning is optimally used to encourage positive behaviours it can also have the opposite effect. Let’s consider the practical situation of a child throwing a tantrum. The child is doing this to receive a desire reward. If the parent caves in to the demands of a performing child they are positively reinforcing the bad behaviour by permitting the child, if they cease with the tantrum, to have their desired ay. If we consider the premise that certain behaviours are rewarded and others are not, then it is plausible to say the child has learnt, through operant conditioning, that if he/she throws a tantrum they will essentially be rewarded for their actions. To reverse this learning in a child, it would be essential to return to the fundamentals of operant conditioning. One of the most important elements in this particular conditioning is timing. The effect of the reinforcement or punishment is the strongest when it is immediately after the unwanted behaviour occurs.

This strengthens the response and allows the child to realise it is not a game. The size of the response is also important (Bernstein et al. , 2006), a timid response to a child’s tantrum will certainly by ignored, but an authoritative reaction will have direct impact. Positive reinforcement and positive punishment will also aid in the re-education of the child’s behaviour. If a tantrum occurs, a child is immediately sent to their room as punishment. If done consistently, this will enable the child to distinguish between their acceptable and unacceptable behaviours therefore leading to a reduction or elimination of tantrums.

Positive reinforcement could also be effectively used in showing the child that desirable or good behaviour will be rewarded without the need to have a tantrum. Operant conditioning is not only very effective in child development; it is also relatable to a wide spectrum of behaviours that can be modified through learning. Bernstein et al. (2006) identified various problematic behaviours that can be modified by the treatment programs based on operant conditioning, including former drug addicts and severely autistic children.

Another illustration of where this treatment would be successful is in the workplace. Employee behaviour can also be modified through operant conditioning by rewarding desirable behaviour, such as punctuality, work standard and consistency. By showing that the desired company standard is rewarded, non performing workers can learn to become more effective. A further example of behaviour modification can be seen in the criminal justice system. If a person is incarcerated for a crime, positive punishment, their behaviour can be altered by positive reinforcement through he method of early release for good behaviour and rehabilitation. In conclusion, operant conditioning is the learning of desirable behaviour through modification. Immediate responses to negative behaviours can teach that there are consequences to all actions, good or bad. The utilisation of these principles must be consistent if they are to be successful, especially in child development. Coupled with the use of secondary reinforcement, operant conditioning is an effective tool in behaviour modification in all degrees of society.

REFERENCES Bernstein, D. A. , Penner, L. , Clarke-Stewart, A. , & Roy, E. J. (2006). Psychology (7th Edition). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. Hayes, H. , and Prenzler, T. (Eds. ). (2007). An Introduction to Crime, Sydney: Pearson Education Australia. Huitt, W. , & Hummel, J. (1997). An introduction to operant (instrumental) conditioning. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved December 20, 2007, from, http://chiron. valdosta. edu/whuitt/col/behsys/operant. html

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