The other day, I was riding the bus to school. There was a cute little girl with little pink sunglasses munching on some Cheezits. All of a sudden, I started to hear whimpers. I watched as she began to wrinkle her nose and jerk her arms-- sure sign of an impending temper-tantrum. Sure enough, she began to cry.
Normally, I would have rolled my eyes and tried not to stare. That day, however, her hissy-fit was a real-world example of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is a learning technique developed by B.F. Skinner and Edward Thorndike. It relies on four basic principles: positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, positive punishment, and negative punishment. In this scenario, the mother used both negative punishment to alter the undesired behavior, and then positive reinforcement to encourage the altered behavior.
Her mom first took away her crackers. Negative punishment. The little girl continued to cry. After ignoring her for a little while, her mom took away the shiny, pink, sparkly sunglasses the girl had been wearing. When she didn't get her beloved sunglasses back, the girl's cries began to wane. Within 5 minutes, the whole ordeal was over, and the little girl was sitting, a little bleary-eyed, next to her mother. Eventually, her mother put her arm around her daughter and returned the sunglasses. A little while later she gave back the Cheezits. In the end, operant conditioning had been used (most likely unknowingly) by a mother to remedy a frustrating situation.
Another example of operant conditioning comes from the television show, Big Bang Theory. In one episode, Sheldon uses chocolates as positive reinforcement to tweak Penny's idiosyncrasies. He also uses negative punishment on Leonard by squirting him with a water bottle, only adding to this comical example of an academic concept. You can watch clips from this episode by clicking on the link below:
All of this still left some questions unanswered for me. In both of these examples, only positive reinforcement and negative punishment were used. What about the other two principles? I can think of real-world examples for both PP and NR, but they are used decidedly less, especially NR. Why is that? Is it because PR and NP come more readily to mind, or is it because they are simply more effective?
Ultimately, I find operant conditioning fascinating. Four simple principles create a virtually limitless means of altering and teaching behavior, with both human and animal applications. This incredible versatility and applicability of operant conditioning is definitely what makes it such an important concept.