The purpose of the following essay is to discuss operant conditioning and to explore the ways in which it is able to modify human behaviours. Operant conditioning, along with classical conditioning, is a type of associative learning. This means that they involve identifying and noting the relationship that occurs between a stimulus and its response. However, classical conditioning is when it is understood that one stimulus is usually followed by another stimulus, whereas operant conditioning is when it is learned that a specific event is brought on by a particular behaviour.
The law of effect is a key component to operant conditioning and how it works. This law of effect describes how a positive result to a behaviour will increase the likelihood of the behaviour reoccurring whereas a bad consequence of a behaviour will decrease the chance of the behaviour being carried out again. There are also three main parts to operant conditioning that have to be considered. The first is antecedent, this is the existing stimuli before the related behaviour occurs. The second is the behaviour emitted by the animal, and lastly, the consequences of the behaviour.
In other terms, the technique of operant conditioning involves teaching that carrying out a particular behaviour will result in either a positive or negative result. This is done by employing both reinforcements and punishments to elicit a response, with reinforcements intensifying and punishments reducing the reaction. In addition to the previous statement, there are two types of punishment and reinforcement; primary and secondary reinforcers. Primary reinforcers are ones which are biological necessities for the animal and are therefore naturally perceived as beneficial to them, whilst secondary reinforcers receive a reaction through their relationship to primary reinforcers. Secondary reinforcers demonstrate how classical conditioning and operant conditioning may be used simultaneously.
Operant generalisation and operant discrimination can also have an effect on whether operant conditioning is successful. Operant generalisation means the particular response will be triggered by a stimulus that is similar to the original antecedent that existed during conditioning. Operant discrimination means that an antecedent which has been learned can still elicit a response if it is not evidently different.
The schedule of reinforcements can also have an influence on how successfully they work. Continuous reinforcement is the ideal method used for operant conditioning as it is when the desired behaviour is reinforced every time it is performed. The second method is the most commonly used and is called partial reinforcement, which is when not all the wanted responses are reinforced. There are also various ways in which partial reinforcement can be carried out; fixed interval schedule, variable interval schedule, fixed ratio schedule, and variable ratio schedule. A fixed interval schedule takes place when a reinforcement is implemented following a specific period of time, whereas a variable interval schedule occurs when reinforcements are used after an uncertain period of time. Furthermore, a fixed ratio schedule is one that involves delivering the reinforcement after the behaviour has been performed a specific number of times, but a variable ratio schedule is when the response receives reinforcement after it has been executed an uncertain amount of times.
Responses to stimuli which have been learnt through the use of operant conditioning can be weakened again, this process is called operant extinction. The most effective way to carry out operant extinction is to issue a punishment following the behaviour, the more promptly the punishment is delivered the more impact it will have. Although continuous reinforcement is the best method for conditioning it also results in fastest extinction were as partial reinforcement is more immune to extinction.
In regard to the use of operant conditioning to alter human behaviour, it can be used in order to eradicate undesirable behaviours for ones more preferable. The idea behind using operant conditioning to get rid of undesirable behaviours is due to most of these behaviours being things which people have learned which means they can be unlearned. This can be done using by rewarding the desirable actions and either neglecting the undesirable actions or having a consequence for them.
Parents and teachers may also use operant conditioning in order to discipline children by punishing them for doing things they should not do and rewarding the things they should do. However, they can sometimes elicit the wrong response when punishing children. For instance, if a child did something they know they should not have done and admits to it but is punished, they may associate the punishment with telling the truth rather than the thing that they did wrong. Therefore, possibly discouraging them from being honest in the future when they have done something that they know is wrong.
However, operant conditioning can also be a cause of psychological disorders within some people. It can play a role in the development of disorders such as obsessive-compulsive disorders, anxiety, and phobias. In relation to obsessive-compulsive disorder, operant conditioning may contribute, as this disorder often involves anxiety associated with a particular event, the person will carry out actions to relieve the anxiety which will, through operant conditioning, then be reinforced leading to the action being repeated in similar moments of anxiety. This is also similar to how operant conditioning can reinforce an anxiety disorder. With phobias, operant conditioning can lead to a person associating an unrelated stimulus to one which produced fear within them if the unrelated stimulus was present at the time of the fear. This could then result in a phobia of the unrelated stimulus causing it to evoke a similar feeling of fear for the person.