Using Gymnastics to Explain Classical and Operant Conditioning

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We've learned in psychology class that Behaviorism assumes that learning occurs through interactions with the environment. Two ways of learning that are described include: Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. Being a gymnast, I will describe these two forms of learning as it could relate to gymnastics.

First, in Classical conditioning the subject learns to respond in a desired manner to a stimulus that at first they are neutral to, but after repeated exposure to this neutral stimulus along with another unconditioned stimulus that automatically causes the desired response, the neutral stimulus will at some point cause the desired response without the unconditioned stimulus present. Here is the Classical conditioning example:

It is common for a gymnast's heart rate to increase just prior to beginning their routine in a competition. (The unconditioned stimulus would be the competition and the unconditioned response would be an increase in heart rate). When a gymnast is ready to compete, he/she waits for the judge to signal them to proceed with an arm gesture also called a salute. (The salute is a neutral stimulus because on its own, this simple lifting of the arm causes no reflexive action).

However, every time a gymnast sees this salute at a competition their heart rate increases as they step on the floor to begin their routine. When the increased heart rate is paired with the salute often enough, these become associated so that even if this gymnast isn't competing and sees a judge give the salute to someone else, the first gymnast's heart rate increases. (The salute has now become the conditioned stimulus and the increased heart rate has become the conditioned response to this stimulus).

Operant Conditioning is a little easier to explain using gymnastics. Operant Conditioning is a way of learning that has to do with consequences such as rewards or punishments for a specific behavior. If a gymnast is training for an event, their coach provides verbal praise (or positive reinforcement) when they do the skill correctly. This triggers the gymnast to do the skill in that same way to receive the verbal praise again. (So the consequence of doing the skill correctly was verbal praise). In contrast, if the gymnast performs the skill incorrectly and falls, that teaches them not to do the skill that way. (The consequence of doing the skill incorrectly was the fall which was positive punishment).


Note that classical conditioning involves your autonomic nervous system or a reflex such as the increased heart rate in the first example and operant conditioning involves voluntary skeletal muscles such as controlling how we executed the skill in the second example.

It is important to understand these two types of learning because it allows us to achieve a desired result. If we want our dog to ring a bell when it needs to go outside, somehow we need the dog to associate ringing the bell with going outside - it doesn't happen instinctively. If we want our students to receive all A's, sometimes money :) is a positive reinforcement. The important thing is you need to understand what you are trying to achieve and what motivates the subject.

As I am typing this blog, the question that comes to mind for further exploration is why does it take some subjects less time to catch on to a desired behavior than other subjects? Is it a matter of intelligence? What experiments/analysis can be done to answer this?

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This page contains a single entry by metc0095 published on October 9, 2011 5:59 PM.

Is there something in my body? was the previous entry in this blog.

Synesthesia is the next entry in this blog.

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