Important Conditions for Operant Conditioning
Three critical factors influence the likelihood of operant conditioning: the reinforcer must follow the response. "Reinforcers" that come before a response has minimal effect on the response.
Ideally, the reinforcer should come right after—a reinforcer focuses on reinforcing the response that came before it.
The reinforcer should be conditional on the response. The reinforcer should ideally be presented only after the desired response, i.e., when the reinforcer is conditional on the response.
Comparison of Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning
An organism exhibits an increase in a specific response in both classical and operant conditioning. However, operant conditioning differs from classical conditioning in three critical ways.
The pairing of two stimuli results in classical conditioning. A conditioned stimulus is the outcome of an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) and a neutral stimulus. By repeatedly introducing the same stimulus, the organism will start exhibiting a new, conditioned response (CR) to the CS, forming a CSCR association. The CR is automatic and involuntary, so the organism has little control over what it does. The CS, according to behaviourists, elicits the CR.
Reinforcement Comes in a Variety of Forms
Behaviourists have identified several stimuli and events that can reinforce and thus increase learners' behaviours. They distinguish between two types of reinforcers: primary and secondary. They also propose that reinforcement can take two forms: positive or negative.
Primary vs. Secondary Reinforcement
A primary reinforcer satisfies an innate, possibly biological, need or desire. Food, water, oxygen, and warmth are primary reinforcers for physiological well-being. Others, such as physical affection and other people's smiles, improve social cohesiveness and thus indirectly improve one's chances of survival (Harlow & Zimmerman, 1959; Vollmer & Hackenberg, 2001). Individual differences exist in terms of reinforcers. While some reinforcer works for a few with a few, they don't work well. For example, sex is reinforcing for some people but not for others.
A secondary reinforcer, or conditioned reinforcer, is an earlier neutral stimulus that has become reinforcing to a learner after repeatedly associating with another reinforcer.
Praise, good grades, and money are secondary reinforcers that do not satisfy any built-in biological or social needs. How do secondary reinforcers become reinforcing? One early viewpoint is based on classical conditioning: A previously neutral stimulus is combined with an existing reinforcer (UCS) that elicits a sense of satisfaction (UCR) and begins to elicit the same sense of satisfaction.
Another viewpoint is that secondary reinforcers provide information that a primary reinforcer is on its way. The second explanation is more cognitive: the learner is looking for information about the environment rather than simply reacting to it in a "thoughtless" manner.
Economic circumstances most likely influence the relative importance of primary and secondary reinforcers in our lives. When biological necessities like food, love, and warmth are scarce, these primary and secondary reinforcers closely related to them (e.g., money) may play a significant role in reinforcing the behaviour.
Positive responses Material and social reinforcers can improve classroom behaviour and lead to improved academic skill learning in some cases because they send the message that students are performing well or making significant progress. Positive reinforcement effectively changes desired behaviour.
Internal reinforcers Learners frequently engage in certain behaviours, not for external consequences, but for the good internal feelings—the intrinsic reinforcers—that such responses bring. Intrinsic reinforcers include feeling successful after completing a complex puzzle, proud after returning a valuable item to its rightful owner, and relieved after completing a difficult assignment. People who engage in responses for an extended period without obvious external reinforcers are most likely seeking intrinsic sources of satisfaction.
In contrast to positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement increases response by removing a stimulus, usually an aversive or unpleasant one. Do not let the word "negative" mislead you here. It is not a value judgment, nor does it imply the presence of undesirable behaviour; it simply refers to the fact that something is being removed from the situation. Consider a rat in a Skinner box, which frequently administers an unpleasant electric shock to the rat. When the rat discovers that pressing a bar stops the shock, its bar-pressing behaviour improves noticeably.
Many of the escape behaviours learned by humans and nonhumans are most likely explained by negative reinforcement. For example, rats exposed to a series of electric shocks quickly learn to turn a wheel, allowing them to escape to a different, shock-free environment (N. E. Miller,1948). Similarly, children and adolescents develop various strategies for avoiding unpleasant tasks and situations in school and elsewhere. Making excuses ("My dog ate my homework!") and engaging in inappropriate classroom behaviours allow students to avoid tedious or frustrating academic assignments (Dolezal & Kurtz, 2010; A. W. Gardner, Wacker, & Boelter, 2009).