MCAT Content / Associative Learning / Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Topic: Associative Learning

Operant conditioning is a theory of learning that focuses on changes in an individual’s observable behaviors. In operant conditioning, new or continued behaviors are impacted by new or continued consequences.

Operant conditioning owes a lot of its foundations to the experiments of B.F Skinner. Skinner’s most famous research studies were simple reinforcement experiments conducted on lab rats and domestic pigeons, which demonstrated the most basic principles of operant conditioning. He conducted most of his research in a special cumulative recorder, now referred to as a “Skinner box,” which was used to analyze the behavioral responses of his test subjects. In these boxes, he would present his subjects with positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, or aversive stimuli in various timing intervals (or “schedules”) that were designed to produce or inhibit specific target behaviors. In his first work with rats, Skinner would place the rats in a Skinner box with a lever attached to a feeding tube. Whenever a rat pressed the lever, food would be released. After the experience of multiple trials, the rats learned the association between the lever and food and began to spend more of their time in the box procuring food than performing any other action.

In his operant-conditioning experiments, Skinner often used an approach called shaping . Instead of rewarding only the target, or desired, behavior, the process of shaping involves the reinforcement of successive approximations of the target behavior (which is often a novel behavior). The method requires that the subject perform behaviors that at first merely resemble the target behavior; through reinforcement, these behaviors are gradually changed or shaped, to encourage the performance of the target behavior itself. Extinction, in operant conditioning, refers to when a reinforced behavior is extinguished entirely. This occurs at some point after reinforcement stops; the speed at which this happens depends on the reinforcement schedule, which is discussed in more detail in another section.

Reinforcement and punishment are principles of operant conditioning that increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior. Reinforcement means you are increasing a behavior: it is any consequence or outcome that increases the likelihood of a particular behavioral response (and that therefore reinforces the behavior). The strengthening effect on the behavior can manifest in multiple ways, including higher frequency, longer duration, greater magnitude, and short-latency of response. Punishment means you are decreasing a behavior: it is any consequence or outcome that decreases the likelihood of a behavioral response.

In the context of operant conditioning, whether you are reinforcing or punishing a behavior, “positive” always means you are adding a stimulus (not necessarily a good one), and “negative” always means you are removing a stimulus (not necessarily a bad one). See the blue text and yellow text above, which represent positive and negative, respectively. Similarly, reinforcement always means you are increasing (or maintaining) the level of behavior, and punishment always means you are decreasing the level of a behavior. See the green and red backgrounds above, which represent reinforcement and punishment, respectively.

– Positive reinforcers add a wanted or pleasant stimulus to increase or maintain the frequency of a behavior.
– Negative reinforcers remove an aversive or unpleasant stimulus to increase or maintain the frequency of a behavior.
– Positive punishments add an aversive stimulus to decrease a behavior or response.
– Negative punishments remove a pleasant stimulus to decrease a behavior or response.

Reinforcement schedules determine how and when a behaviour will be followed by a reinforcer. A schedule of reinforcement is a tactic used in operant conditioning that influences how an operant response is learned and maintained. Each type of schedule imposes a rule or program that attempts to determine how and when the desired behavior occurs. Behaviors are encouraged through the use of reinforcers, discouraged through the use of punishments, and rendered extinct by the complete removal of a stimulus. Schedules vary from a simple ratio– and interval-based schedules to more complicated compound schedules that combine one or more simple strategies to manipulate behavior. Some examples of schedules are:

-A fixed-interval schedule is when behavior is rewarded after a set amount of time.
– A variable-interval schedule, the subject gets the reinforcement based on varying and unpredictable amounts of time.
– A fixed-ratio schedule, there are a set number of responses that must occur before the behavior is rewarded.
– A variable-ratio schedule, the number of responses needed for a reward varies.

Additionally, a discriminating stimulus can be presented before the subject responds. This discriminating stimulus signals the availability of the reinforcement/punishment, and increases the probability of a response.

Avoidance learning is the process by which an individual learns a behavior or response to avoid a stressful or unpleasant situation. The behavior is to avoid, or to remove oneself from, the situation. The reinforcement for the behavior is to not experience the negative punishment, but rather experience the absence of punishment.


Practice Questions


Khan Academy

 

MCAT Official Prep (AAMC)

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 5

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 11

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 12

Online Flashcards Psychology Question 21

Official Guide P/S Section Passage 3 Question 15

Section Bank P/S Section Question 13

Section Bank P/S Section Question 34

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 7 Question 35

Sample Test P/S Section Passage 7 Question 38

Section Bank P/S Section Question 82

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Passage 1 Question 4

Practice Exam 2 P/S Section Question 12

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 1 Question 2

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 1 Question 4

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Passage 6 Question 32

Practice Exam 4 P/S Section Question 44


Key Points

• Shaping involves a calculated reinforcement of a “target behavior”: it uses operant conditioning principles to train a subject by rewarding proper behavior and discouraging improper behavior.

• The method requires that the subject perform behaviors that at first merely resemble the target behavior; through reinforcement, these behaviors are gradually changed or “shaped” to encourage the target behavior itself.

• Skinner’s early experiments in operant conditioning involved the shaping of rats’ behavior, so they learned to press a lever and receive a food reward.

• Reinforcement refers to any consequence that increases the likelihood of a particular behavioral response; ” punishment ” refers to a consequence that decreases the likelihood of this response.

• Both reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative. In operant conditioning, positive means you are adding something and negative means you are taking something away.

• Reinforcers can be either primary (linked unconditionally to a behavior) or secondary (requiring deliberate or conditioned linkage to a specific behavior).

• A reinforcement schedule is a tool in operant conditioning that allows the trainer to control the timing and frequency of reinforcement in order to elicit a target behavior.

• Different schedules (fixed-interval, variable-interval, fixed-ratio, and variable-ratio) have different advantages and respond differently to extinction.

• Avoidance learning is the process by which an individual learns a behavior or response to avoid a stressful or unpleasant situation.


Key Terms

punishment: the act or process of imposing and/or applying a sanction for an undesired behavior when conditioning toward the desired behavior

aversive: tending to repel, causing avoidance (of a situation, a behavior, an item, etc.)

successive approximation: an increasingly accurate estimate of a response desired by a trainer

shaping: a method of positive reinforcement of behavior patterns in operant conditioning

latency: the delay between a stimulus and the response it triggers in an organism

extinction: when a behavior ceases because it is no longer reinforced

interval: a period of time

ratio: a number representing a comparison between two things

operant conditioning: a type of associative learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment

B.F. Skinner: developed the theory of operant conditioning

reinforcement: increasing a behavior

discriminating stimulus: stimulus presented before a reinforcer/punishment, to signal availability and increase probability of responding

avoidance learning: the process by which an individual learns a behavior or response to avoid a stressful or unpleasant situation.



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