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For more than a century, psychologists' thinking has been influenced by the idea that consequences affect behaviour, which is especially prominent in behaviourist learning theories. Behaviourists, in particular, are interested in instrumental conditioning and chose to discuss the same. Both humans and animals decide to behave in ways that result in desirable outcomes or allow them to achieve their goals and choose to avoid those who are unpleasant. In this episode, we'll look at the work of two early American behaviourists, Edward Thorndike and B. F. Skinner, who emphasized the importance of consequences in learning.
Edward Thorndike introduced a learning theory in 1898 that emphasized the impact experience has in strengthening and weakening the stimulus-response connections; this viewpoint is sometimes referred to as connectionism1 (Thorndike, 1898, 1911, 1913). Thorndike used a cat in his doctoral dissertation. He used a puzzle box with a door that a wire loop could open. Thorndike observed the cat engaging in a variety of seemingly random behaviours in an attempt to escape the box. Eventually, the cat learnt to trigger how to open the door and escape.
Thorndike placed the cat in the box a second time and again engaged in trial-and-error behaviour, but this time it managed to escape in less time. As the test progressed, the cat took less time to run. Thorndike concluded from his observations of cats in the puzzle box that learning is a series of trial-and-error behaviour. Gradually after a certain time some behaviours eliminate while some behaviours remain. Thorndike's law of effect can be summarised as follows:
Responses to a situation that result in satisfaction are strengthened; responses that result in discomfort are weakened. In other words, rewarded responses increase while punished responses decrease and, in some cases, disappear. According to Thorndike's original law of effect, reward and punishment have opposite but equal effects on behaviour: one strengthens, and the other weakens. However, his subsequent research (1932a,1932b) suggested that punishment may be ineffective in weakening responses. College students took a multiple-choice Spanish vocabulary test (Thorndike, 1932a) in which they had to pick the correct English meaning of words given in Spanish. When a student chose the correct definition, the experimenter kept saying right, and when the word went wrong, the instructor said wrong. The word right became a rewarding response, and the word wrong became a punishing response.
Thorndike concluded from his observations of cats in the puzzle box that learning is a series of trial-and-error behaviour.
Over a series of trials, the student's responses improved for the words they were rewarded but did not decrease those for which they had been punished. In his revised law of effect, Thorndike (1935) maintained that rewards strengthen the behaviours they follow, but he downplayed the relevance of punishment.
He explained that punishment has an indirect impact on learning.
When a learner encounters an annoying situation, they may engage in certain other behaviours like crying or fleeing) that interfere with the performance of the punished response.
Thorndike's ideas did not all stand the test of time. His belief that satisfying consequences cause changes in behaviour—that is, rewards promote learning—remains a crucial component of behaviourist perspectives today. His stance on punishment has been more contentious.
Rewards and Reinforcement
The research was based on Thorndike's findings, which centred on the effects of pleasant consequences rather than unpleasant ones. Now, we'll look at Skinner's version of Thorndike's law of effect's "reward" part, a variety of consequences that humans may find rewarding (reinforcing).
B. F. Skinner is the most well-known behaviourist learning theorist. Skinner, like Thorndike, proposed that organisms acquire behaviours that are followed by specific consequences. To study the effects of values objectively and precisely, B.F. Skinner developed a tool known as the Skinner box. It has gained widespread popularity in animal learning research. Initially, it was used to study the behaviour of rats. The tool included a metal bar, which, when pushed downswing, the food tray and reach the rat. The rat can quickly grab the food pellet.
Instead of a metal bar, a pigeon is used in the pigeon version of the box. Based on this study, B.F skinner understood that rats and pigeons learn to obtain food petals over time. Based on this study Skinner (1938) developed a new operant conditioning theory. We can define reinforcement as a reaction that is reinforced and thus more likely to occur again.
In other words, reinforced responses tend to become more frequent, and this increase—a behaviour change—indicates that learning is taking place.
Skinner's operant conditioning principle has proven to be a handy and powerful explanation for why humans frequently act the way they do. Its applications to instructional and therapeutic situations are nearly limitless. Almost any behaviour—academic, social, or psychomotor—can be learned or modified through operant conditioning. Unfortunately, undesirable behaviours are just as easily reinforced as desirable ones. Aggression and criminal activity frequently result in successful outcomes: crime usually pays. In school, disruptive behaviours often attract the attention of teachers and classmates when more productive behaviours do not.
Today, we talked in detail on instrumental conditioning. In the next part, we can discuss a new topic.