Animal Behavior/Operant Conditioning

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Operant conditioning, sometimes called instrumental conditioning or instrumental learning, was first extensively studied by Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949). Thorndike's most famous work investigated the behavior of cats trying to escape from various home-made puzzle boxes. When first constrained in the boxes the cats took a long time to escape from each. With experience however, ineffective responses occurred less frequently and successful responses occurred more quickly enabling the cats to escape in less and less time over successive trials (Wikipedia).

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) extended the theories proposed by Thorndike about 40 years after Thorndike published his works. Skinner's ideas of animals operating on the environment led him to analyze how behavior is affected by its consequences. The contraption that became known as the Skinner box measured whether a task was completed and how long it took for the task to be completed. The Skinner box consisted of a bar that, when pressed, triggered the release of a food pellet. Skinner believed that rewarding an animal when an appropriate action occurred would increase the likelihood that the behavior would be repeated. When a rat accidentally tapped on the bar, a food pellet was released, and Skinner observed the amount of time it took the rat to find the pellet. As the rat learned that a pellet released each time he happened to step on the bar, the rat learned to press the bar and to immediately find the food. This training became known as operant conditioning (Alcock).

Today Skinners operant conditioning is still used to train animals. All animals that are part of Sea World programs have been trained using positive reinforcement operant conditioning. When an animal performs a desired behavior the trainer will reward the animal to encourage the action to be performed when signaled for at a later time. Positive reinforcers are stimuli that strengthen a response if they follow that response (How Animals). Negative reinforcers can also be used to encourage a certain behavior. It is important to distinguish the difference between negative reinforcement and the punishment theory. Negative reinforcement is simply the removal of an unpleasant stimulant or pain (Bernstein). For example: a person who uses an alarm that plays a pleasant song may oftentimes hit the snooze or linger in bed. To condition himself to get out of bed as soon as the alarm goes off the person may switch the alarm sound to something obnoxiously loud and unpleasant. To remove the unpleasant stimulant the person will immediately get out of bed and turn the alarm off. Knowing how to remove the unpleasant sound increases the likelihood that the person will get out of bed immediately after the alarm plays. The Punishment theory, on the other hand, introduces an aversive stimulus to reduce the likelihood of a certain behavior.

Operant conditioning is seen in the learning behavior of many animals, including humans. Oftentimes it goes completely unnoticed, but it can also be used as a deliberate tool in training. As young children explore their world and learn how to eliminate unpleasant stimuli and satisfy desires through proper behavior, they are learning through operant conditioning.

See also Thorndike's Law of Effect

Works Cited[edit]

Bernstein, D. A., Penner, L. A. et al. Psychology. 6th ed. Houghton Mifflin Co.: Boston, 2003.

Alcock, John. Animal Behavior. 7th editionSinauer Associates, Inc.: Sunderland, 2001.

“How Animals Learn.” Sea World/ Busch Gardens Animal Information Database, 2002. Retrieved from the World Wide Web 5 December 2004. http://www.seaworld.org/animal-info/info-books/training/how-animals-learn.htm. yo0 yo ihdouifhjsijfd owifuh woihn