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Behavioral Conditioning

B. F. Skinner is considered one of the most important psychologists and behavior theorist of all time. He developed the study of conditioning behavior in both animals and humans, and pioneered operant conditioning. Skinner recognized the occurrence of two kinds of conditioning: classical and operant. In classical conditioning, behavior is elicited or is drawn out from the subject by the use of a particular, identifiable stimulus (Feist & Feist, 2007). Reflexes are examples of this, as well as trained phobias.

A child can be trained to show fear by making loud noises whenever he or she is placed near a shiny, scaly object. This would eventually train him to fear reptiles. Skinner’s operant conditioning stems from his belief that learned behaviors, those beyond automatic reflexes, can be emitted by humans as a reaction to their environment (Feist & Feist, 2007). By positively or negatively reinforcing certain stimuli, a person can learn to automatically act or react by oneself. Positive reinforcement is the presentation or increase of positive stimuli when a person reacts to his or her environment in the desired manner.

On the other hand, a negative reinforcement is the taking away or decrease of an aversive stimulus as a reward for reacting to one’s environment desirably (Feist & Feist, 2007). Negative reinforcement is not punishment. Negative reinforcement is a reward in that it removes what the subject perceives to be a harmful stimulus, while punishment is the presentation of the negative stimulus because one is not able to do what is one ought to. An example of operant conditioning is a girl being told to stop biting her finger nails.

Positive reinforcement occurs as a reward such as new hair ribbons for not biting her nails. If her parents take away her television privileges, punishment happens. However, if the girl is able to stop biting her nails and is rewarded by receiving television privileges, that is negative reinforcement. In all cases, effective behavior shaping should happen at successive approximations. That is one should be rewarded only for continuous and improving behavior learning. Skinner found out that reinforcement is more effective at intermittent schedules rather than continuous.

The changing frequency of reinforcement proved to be stronger and more resistant to extinction. Humans are very flexible. They learn quickly and pick up on which actions results into benefits for them. To avoid falling into routine or being overly dependent that they no longer work for what they receive, Skinner himself learned that people should reward at an intermittent pace and only actions that are increasingly improving. It is only by never ending growth and progress that humans reach their potentials. Reference Feist, J. & Feist, G. J. (2007). Theories of Personality (6th ed). New York: McGraw-Hill.

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