Thursday, June 16, 2011

Operant Conditioning

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The use of Operant Conditioning to shape a desired behaviour

Behavioural psychology is a branch of Psychology, which studies the way in which humans learn and adapt to their environment. The ability to adapt and to learn from a constant changing environment is essential for survival of all species, not exclusive to the human race. “Operant conditioning involves operant behaviour, as each individual act operates on the environment to produce rewarding or punishing stimuli”. (Myers, 00, 01.).

Operational Conditioning is a method used to increase a desirable behaviour, and to decrease an undesirable behaviour. This method incorporates shaping, positive and negative reinforcement, token economies and reinforcement schedules to further increase a desirable behaviour within a species. B.F. Skinner, one of the most influential behavioural psychologists who developed his theory of Operational Conditioning from Edward L. Thorndike’s Law of Effect, used these fundamental principles of reinforcement and reinforcement schedules to shape and modify the behaviour in rats placed in a controlled environment, called a Skinner box. (Myers, 00, 01.).

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Edward. L. Thorndike’s theory of the Law of Effect states that “Rewarded behaviour is likely to recur, whereas punished behaviour is likely not likely to recur.” (Myers, 00, 01.). Using this theory as a starting point, Skinner developed a behavioural technology that revealed principles of control. These principles enabled Skinner to teach pigeons such behaviours as walking in a figure eight, playing ping-pong, and keeping a missile on course by pecking at a target on a screen. (Myers, 00, 01.).

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Critics of Skinners theory denounce it stating “he dehumanized people by neglecting their personal freedom and by seeking to control their actions.” (Myers, 00, 01.). Skinner’s response was that “recognizing behaviour that is shaped by its consequences, we, as a society,

should administer rewards in ways that promote behaviour that is more desirable. Due to the fact that people’s behaviour is already haphazardly controlled by external consequences, why not administer those consequences for human betterment”(Myers, 00, 01.).

The present study is an attempt to test the efficiency of Skinners principles of Operant Conditioning to increase desired study behaviour, by the use of a controlled experiment. A participant recorded his/her daily activities on a daily calendar. For the period of approximately two weeks the participant recorded when the desired behaviour of study occurred naturally. The participant then recorded on a daily calendar the occurrence of the desired behaviour for four weeks with the use of operant conditioning principles as an intervention to gradually increase the amount of time studied. It was expected that the participant would observe and benefit from an increase in the desired study behaviour.



The participant for this study was a male, approximately 18 years of age, and was a Douglas College psychology 100 student who participated in this study for course credit. For two weeks, he participant was asked to record base line data of his study behaviour as it occurred naturally, then was asked to record his behaviour with a four week intervention, using key techniques and principles of Operant Conditioning. The participant, during the four-week

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intervention was asked to record the number of minutes studied each day, for each week. The participant agreed and signed a consent form. (see appendix A).


The participant was asked to use a pencil and daily records calendar to record his daily behaviours, as they occurred naturally for two weeks. After the two-week period, he was then asked to record his daily behaviour and his study behaviour while using the principles of operant conditioning to increase his study behaviour. After each day, if the required behaviour occurred, the participant was given a token in which he could redeem for ‘free’ time.

The principles of operant conditioning used were continuous, positive reinforcement by using tokens to gain personal time, tokens, a fixed-interval reinforcement schedule as every time the desired behaviour occurred the participant received a token, and shaping, the use of operant conditioning to modify and enhance the desired behaviour. The participant used Myers 6th edition psychology textbook to study from.


The participant was asked to record his behaviour every day for two weeks. This would provide a controlled variable in which to compare the experimental variable. After two weeks, the participant was then introduced to principles of operant conditioning (ex positive and potent reinforcement and a reinforcement schedule.). For four weeks, he recorded his daily behaviour and for every time the desired minutes of daily study behaviour was achieved, he received a token. Each token granted to the participant could be redeemed for one hour of personal time. Each week the number of desired study minutes increased. At the end of each week, if all desired study minutes from Monday through Sunday exclusive were achieved, the participant was

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allowed to purchase two new CDs. If the desired study minutes were not achieved for each week,

Monday through Sunday exclusive, the participant was denied the purchase of two CDs.

For two weeks the participant collected base line data. In week one of the intervention period the participant was required to study for a minimum of 45 minutes per day, per week. In the second week the participant was required to study for a minimum of 75 minutes per day, per week, then for 15 minutes per day, per week in week three. Finally, the participant was required to study for a minimum of 150 minutes per day, per week. If all of the desired minutes of study was accomplished, at the end of each day the participant received a token in which he could redeem for free minutes of personal time. At the end of each week, if all minutes of study were accomplished, the participant was allowed to purchase two new CDs as a reward. At the end of each week the participant recorded his results on a table, which he could then compare to the required results for that week. At the end of the four week intervention all six weeks of data was collected for the purpose of a compare and contrast table to show the behaviour achieved by the participant, and the predicted, desired behaviour defined by the experiment. (see appendix B)


The effectiveness of operant conditioning principles during the four-week intervention period was assessed by comparing the experimental intervention data with the two-weeks of base line data. As anticipated, the participant’s study behaviour gradually and steadily increased during the intervention period.

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As the figure 1 demonstrates, the amount of time in minutes in which the participant studied was average. During the four weeks of intervention however, the participant’s behaviour steadily increased.

As table one indicates, during the four weeks of intervention the participants study behaviour increased, and as shown in weeks four and five, surpassed the desired target.


The results of this study demonstrate that the use of operant conditioning principles, such as positive reinforcement, token economies and reinforcement schedules for shaping behaviour were effective. The two weeks of base line data indicated that the study behaviour of the participant was average, however it was not consistent from day to day. As expected, when the participant underwent a four-week intervention period using operant conditioning principles, his study behaviour steadily increased and was consistent each day.

Past experiments suggest that operant conditioning is effective in shaping a desirable behaviour through reinforcement. B.F. Skinners experiments with rats and pigeons found that the use of successive approximations by rewarding only the desirable behaviour, and administering reinforcers that have a positive effect will promote shaping of a specific and desired behaviour. “By making rewards contingent on desired behaviours, researchers and animal trainers gradually shape complex behaviours.” (Myers, 00, pg 0.).

The study encompasses limitations. There were no control measures taken to ensure that the time studies were done at the same time, each day for consistency and continuity. The study itself was a case study, only focussing on one individual, therefore generalization cannot be

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drawn form this studies findings. Although tokens were used and reinforcers were present, the fact that the participant administered there own rewards may have altered the results as the participant could give himself rewards regardless if he completed the desired behaviour or not. Finally, due to the fact that the positive reinforced must be, according to Nancy Maloney a psychology professor at Douglas College,“immediate, accessible and potent”(N. Maloney, personal communications, 00.); the reinforcement in this study may not have been potent or accessible enough for the participant as it was not immediate. The reinforcement was given at the end of each week, rather than each day.

Further research would benefit from a reinforcement that is immediate and accessible, administered by the experimenter, rather than the participant, and experimenting upon larger populations, randomly selected would give more credible and sound results in which a generalization may be pulled

In conclusion, the findings support the hypothesis in that operant conditioning is a successful way in which to modify, shape and increase a desired behaviour through the use of its fundamental techniques and principles.

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