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Psychology Factsheets

www.curriculum-press.co.uk Number 17
Operant Conditioning
This factsheet: Consequences of behaviour
• summarises the main features of operant conditioning; and When an animal performs a behaviour, there can be many types of
• assesses the role of operant conditioning in the behaviour of consequence. The consequence may be something pleasant which
non-human animals. will make the animal repeat the behaviour or something nasty which
We have underlined keywords that you should know for the exam. will stop the animal from doing that behaviour again.

What is operant conditioning? Schedules of reinforcement


• Operant conditioning explains how animals learn certain It is possible to give reinforcement in two ways – continuous and
behaviours. partial.
• Operant conditioning focuses on the behaviour an animal makes • Continuous reinforcement gives a reward after every response
and the consequence of that behaviour. The consequence of the animal makes. For example, the rat will get a pellet of food
the behaviour determines how likely it is that the animal will do after every lever press.
that behaviour again. • Partial reinforcement gives a reward after only some responses.
• The consequence of a behaviour can be positive (something Skinner found four schedules of partial reinforcement:
pleasant) or negative (something unpleasant). Whether the 1. Fixed ratio schedule – reward after a certain number of
consequence is positive or negative determines whether the responses. For example, a food pellet after every 8 presses on
behaviour will be repeated in future (i.e., learnt). the lever.
• There are two laws: 2. Variable ratio schedule – reward after a certain number of
o The law of reinforcement → a positive reward/reinforcement responses on average. For example, food after 8 presses on
(e.g., food/praise) increases the chance of learning a average, so there is sometimes a reward after the 6th press and
behaviour. sometimes after the 10th press.
o The law of contiguity → the behaviour and consequence 3. Fixed interval schedule – reward following the first response
(e.g., reward) must happen close enough together in time after a certain interval of time. For example, food for a lever
for learning to occur. press every 5 minutes.
4. Variable interval schedule – as for fixed interval, but on
An example of operant conditioning -Imagine that your average. For example, food reward about every two minutes
new puppy is in the garden and wants to come in, but (sometimes 1.5 minutes, sometimes 2.5 minutes).
the door is shut. On one occasion your puppy sits by
the door and accidentally taps the door with his paw. Partial reinforcement is better in conditioning a behaviour than
You hear this and quickly respond by opening the door. continuous reinforcement. It is better because the occasional lack of
Your puppy finds this pleasant as he wants to be with you. Your a reward is normal. In continuous reinforcement, the animal expects
puppy will gradually learn that tapping the door means that you let a reward every time, so the lack reduces the chance of the behaviour
him into the house. being repeated.

The effect of his behaviour (tapping the door) results in something Extinction is when a behaviour is extinguished (unlearned) if the
positive (you opening the door). So, your puppy has learnt the response is not reinforced. The behaviour stops as the animal learns
behaviour by the effect (consequence) it had on the environment. that the behaviour has no consequence. Partial reinforcement leads
to slower extinction than continuous reinforcement. The extinction
is slower because the animal is used to getting rewards infrequently
and keeps going for a while in expectation of a reward.
Table 1: Types of consequence
Type of consequence Description Example
Positive reinforcement Increases the chance of a behaviour occurring again by Receiving a reward (e.g., food) after pressing a lever.
providing a pleasant consequence.
Negative reinforcement Increases the chance of a behaviour occurring again by Moving away from an electric shock.
removing (or escape from) an unpleasant consequence.
Secondary reinforcement Primary reinforcers (rewards) are linked with Food is a primary reinforcer whereas a mother is a
secondary reinforcers. secondary reinforcer because she provides the food.
Punishment Decreases the chance of a Positive punishment provides Giving an electric shock.
behaviour occurring again by a negative consequence by
providing an unpleasant giving something.
consequence. There are two
types of punishment - Negative punishment provides Removing food
positive punishment and a negative consequence by
negative punishment. removing something.

Exam Hint: Learn the Keywords underlined. Candidates should be able to describe, give types of consequence and schedules of
reinforcement for operant conditioning,

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17 Operant Conditioning Psychology Factsheet

Another name for operant conditioning is ‘instrumental conditioning’. The theory of operant conditioning developed from classical
conditioning (see Glossary). Thorndike developed this theory and then Skinner took it further (see text boxes below).

Thorndike’s cat in a puzzle box Skinner’s rats in a ‘Skinner box’


Edward Thorndike thought that learning happens by In 1938, B.F. Skinner examined learning using rats.
trial and error. He tested this in 1898 by placing a He placed a rat in a cage that had a lever inside. The
hungry cat in a ‘puzzle box’ with food hanging nearby lever connected to a food dispenser on the outside
just outside the box. The box could be opened by (a ‘Skinner box’). Pressing the lever dropped a pellet of food
pulling a string which opened the latch. He observed that the cat inside the cage. Skinner observed that the rat first pressed the
performed several behaviours such as meowing and scratching. lever by accident but soon learnt the link between the behaviour
The cat accidentally opened the latch by pulling the string and (pressing the lever) and the reward (food).
escaped. The next time he put the cat in the box, it opened the
box faster than the first time. After a few more trials, the cat learnt Exam Hint: The exam question may ask for operant conditioning
what to do and released the catch immediately. or classical conditioning, or both. Stick to the type of conditioning
asked for in the question and do not get them confused!

Evaluating the role of operant conditioning in the behaviour of non-human animals


In this section, we will look at the strengths and limitations of operant conditioning and how it relates to behaviour of non-human animals.
Strengths
• Operant conditioning explains a wide range of phenomena, such as learning language and phobias.
• It has practical applications, such as training animals (see Tortoises and Shaping text boxes below).
• It examines learning in controlled experiments in the laboratory. The findings are easily replicated.
• Operant conditioning enables animals to behave efficiently in their environment. For example, operant conditioning enables the best
foraging strategies in birds. They learn where they are most likely to find food and return to these areas to constantly check for food
(rewards).

Tortoises Cognitive Factors


Weiss and Wilson (2003) used positive Animals may use reasoning (cognitive factors) in learning a
reinforcement to train four tortoises to approach a behaviour. Operant conditioning ignores cognitive factors in
target (a red plastic ball on a stick) and hold their learning. However, some research has found that animals do use
head still while touching the target. They were given food as a reasoning. For instance, in Mackintosh’s (1994) study, rats
reward for doing this. Training the tortoises to do this meant pressed the lever in a Skinner box for a food reward. The
that it would be easier to take blood samples than if someone experimenter then gave the rats an injection to create an aversion
had to pick the tortoise up. to the food. They found that the rats eventually stopped pressing
the lever. This finding is difficult to explain without cognitive
Shaping factors as the experimenters did nothing to directly stop the rats
Operant conditioning can train animals to do complex tasks by pressing the lever. Instead the rats had associated the lever with
rewarding animals for a behaviour that is similar to the desired the aversion.
end behaviour. The training happens step by step until the animal
is doing the complex behaviour. For example, to get a tortoise to Pigs
hold still at target, Weiss and Wilson began by rewarding the Skinner proposed that any behaviour could be
tortoise if it moved slightly towards the target. They then conditioned in any situation (he called this
rewarded it for standing next to the target and so on until it would ‘equipotentiality’). However, it is more difficult to
hold its head still on the target. train some animals on some behaviours than
others. For example, Breland and Breland (1961) tried to train
Limitations pigs to put a wooden token into a piggy bank. The pig would
• Experiments on operant conditioning use animals and so there then get a reward. However, the pigs would not do this. Instead
are ethical issues. they would pick the token up and drop it. The pig was doing its
• As these experiments use just a few species of animal (e.g., natural ’rooting’ behaviour for finding food. It appears that
cats, pigeons, rats), the findings may not generalise to other animals only learn behaviours through operant conditioning that
species. are like their instinctive behaviour.
• Experimenters study operant conditioning in laboratories and
so the findings may not be ecologically valid. Glossary
• Animals are learning unnatural behaviours that they would not Adapt: a change in a species’ behaviour to fit in with its environment.
do in the wild (e.g., pressing a lever). Aversion: a strong dislike.
• Operant conditioning does not take cognitive factors into Classical conditioning: proposed by Pavlov, this focuses on how
account (see Cognitive Factors text box). a stimulus (e.g., a bell) is associated with a bodily response (e.g.,
• Operant conditioning does account for innate abilities that adapt salivating). This response is not under the animal’s control.
a species to its environment (See Pigs text box). Ecologically valid: An ecologically valid experiment is one that can
• Operant conditioning does not consider other forms of learning be generalised to real-life events.
such as observational learning. For example, Sherry and Galef Foraging: behaviour involved in finding a suitable source of food.
(1984) found that birds learnt to open a tub of cream by watching Innate: abilities that an animal is born with.
other birds do it. Replicated: the findings of an experiment can be repeated
(replicated) to test whether the same result is found.
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17 Operant Conditioning Psychology Factsheet

Worksheet: Operant Conditioning


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1. What is operant conditioning?

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2. What are the two laws in operant conditioning?

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3. What types of consequence strengthen a behaviour?

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4. What is continuous reinforcement?

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5. Explain two types of partial reinforcement.

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6. Give two advantages of operant conditioning.

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Example Exam Question


(a) Describe the nature of operant conditioning. (12 marks)
(b) Assess the role of operant conditioning in the behaviour of non-human animals. (12 marks)

To answer part (a), you need to outline the main features of operant conditioning. It requires a description but not an evaluation of the
theory. You should define operant conditioning and describe the laws, types of consequence and reinforcement schedules. You
should also briefly mention Thorndike and Skinner. Try to use an example of operant conditioning (e.g., Skinner’s rats).
To answer part (b), you need to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of operant conditioning. Any points from the strengths and
limitations sections above are relevant. Include examples of animal behaviour in your evaluation, such as Breland and Breland’s
study or Weiss and Wilson’s experiment.

Acknowledgements: This Psychology Factsheet was researched and written by Amanda Albon. The Curriculum Press, Bank House, 105 King Street, Wellington, Shropshire, TF1 1NU.
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