Unit 7 Assignment
PS210: History of Psychology
Over the years psychologists have studied behaviors and how they are learned. This research led to the theory of operant conditioning and classical conditioning. Both theories are processes that lead to the learning of behaviors. We will take a deeper look at both theories and how they originated.
First, let’s take a look at operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is “a learning situation that involves behavior emitted by an organism rather than elicited by a detectable stimulus” (Schultz & Schultz, pg. 247, 2016). This concept was first brought about by B.F. Skinner. Skinner created an experiment to demonstrate this. He created a box that included a lever, where a rat would be place in. The rat would be placed in the box and allowed to explore. Upon exploration that rat would accidentally press the lever, which result in a food pellet being released. This would happen several times. The food pellets would become reinforcers for the rat to continue pushing the lever to get that food. The rat’s behavior of pushing the lever, was being reinforced every single time by receiving the food. Skinner then went on and used this experiment to test reinforcement schedules. Instead of the rat receiving food after every lever push, they would get one after a certain amount of time had passed. The frequency of the reinforcement was shown to impact the response rate (Schultz & Schultz, 2016). This baseline of knowledge brought about by Skinner has been used in various settings to help learn new behaviors.
While operant conditioning does not include a detectable stimuli, classical condition does. Classical conditioning is the learning of a new behavior through association. In other words, two stimuli are put together to create a new, learned response. This theory was coined by Ivan Pavlov. Classical conditioning includes three different stages. The first is before conditioning where the unconditioned stimulus produces an unconditioned response. In Pavlov’s example, a food (unconditioned stimulus) produces a response of salivation (unconditioned response). The environmental stimulus produces a natural response which has not been taught. The next stage is during conditioning. This stage is when a stimulus which produces no response (neutral) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus. As this point, that unconditioned stimulus becomes known as the conditioned. So the food (unconditioned stimulus) could be associated with bell (conditions stimulus) that has rung when the food was presented, which on its own would produce no response. The last stage is known as after conditioning. This is when the conditioned stimulus (bell) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus (food) to produce a new conditioned response (salivation). Watson and Rayner also demonstrated this in what is known as the Little Albert Experiment. Little Albert was a 9 month old who was tested on his reactions to different stimuli (masks, a rabbit, rat, monkey). At this age none of the stimuli created a response of fear from Albert. What did create that response was a hammer being struck against a bar, which scared him and caused him to cry. When Albert was 11 months old, the white rat was once again presented, but this time followed up by a hammer strike. This happened several times over the course of the following weeks, causing Albert to cry every time. By the end of those weeks, all Albert had to see to make himself scared was the white rat no matter if the bar was struck or not. He had associated that sound with the white rat, which created his fearful response. Watson and Rayner created a situation and demonstrated how classical conditioning could be used to create a phobia.
To better understand both operant and classical conditioning, let’s apply both theories to the following case study:
Joey is a five year old boy who just entered in to kindergarten at the beginning of the
month. Throughout the month he has been in school, Joey has been known to act out
each day. He often interrupts the teacher while she is teaching, has a hard time sharing
with other students, and uses foul language and physical actions towards others. Joey’s
teacher, Mrs. Smith, has been working hard with his parents to come up with a plan to
help limit and hopefully all together stop these unwanted behaviors. Mrs. Smith sits
down with Joey one morning and explains their new plan to him. Joey will start with a
blank sheet of paper every day. After each scheduled part of the day (morning math,
lunch, recess, reading group, etc.) Mrs. Smith will think about how Joey acted during
that time. If there were no outbursts, she will place a gold star sticker on the blank
sheet of paper. If by the end of the day Joey receives 5 stickers, he then will get to pick
out a small price from the class treasure box. However, if he does not receive that
many, then Joey will not get a prize and will have to try again the next day. Mrs. Smith
hopes that eventually she will be able to lessen the amount of stickers needed, and
eventually switch to having it happen over a weeks time span rather than a day. After a
week going through with this plan, Joey still has some outbursts during the days, and
even some days that he does not receive those five stars, but over all Mrs. Smith and
Joey’s parents have seen a decline in his unwanted behavior.
When looking at Joey’s behavior situation and how Mrs. Smith handled it, we can see that she chose the path of operant conditioning. Joey was trained to see that his good behavior would result in him getting gold stars and prizes. This is just how Skinner’s rat was trained to press the lever to get food. Also similar to the rat experiment, Mrs. Smith will test the limits with scheduled reinforcement as well. Though it is not the exact same, she is still causing the response to come after a set time of the stimulus rather than immediately.
Mrs. Smith’s route may match operant conditioning, she also could have chosen classical conditioning instead. Mrs. Smith knows that pulling Joey aside and reprimanding him does not get him to stop the behavior, but taking away his recess time does. If Mrs. Smith pulls Joey aside and tells him that his recess will be taken away, he eventually will associate being pulled aside with no recess, or a negative thing. In the end this would (hopefully) cause Joey to be able to stop and redirect his behavior just by being pulled aside and talked too.
Experiments in classical conditioning, such Skinner and the rat, and those done in operant conditioning like Pavlov and the dog and Little Albert, really set a foundation for what was to be applied in modern principles. Psychologists, educators, parents, etc. can take these principles of learned behavior and apply them in their own situations. This has helped to modify behavior that is unwanted or needs to be changed. It is no doubt that these social learning theories have helped shape the minds of those today, and it is no doubt that it will continue too.
Schultz, Duane P. A History of Modern Psychology, 11th Edition. Cengage Learning, 2016.
[Purdue University Global Bookshelf].