B.F. Skinner’s Theory Of Operant Conditioning
Mrinal is one of the most strong-headed employees on her team. She’s not afraid to stand up to her seniors…
August 19, 2021 | 7 mins read
Mrinal is one of the most strong-headed employees on her team. She’s not afraid to stand up to her seniors or speak her mind, when necessary. What gives her the confidence to be self-reliant is her good work, reinforced by positive feedback.
However, on one occasion, Mrinal’s senior tells her off for being rude and arrogant in office. Instead of the usually positive feedback she is used to, this negative feedback leads her astray. She becomes meeker and more reluctant to share her ideas as willingly.
Mrinal’s behavior is directly impacted or affected by the consequences of her actions. This is the basis of the operant conditioning theory founded by American psychologist B.F. Skinner. The BF Skinner theory is built on, and advanced from, Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect that states behaviors that reap satisfying results are more likely to be repeated and vice versa.
However, the Skinner theory makes a significant departure from Thorndike’s theory. His idea of operant or types of responses draws from ‘reinforcement’ instead of the law of effect.
Read on to learn more about the operant conditioning theory of learning and how the BF Skinner theory is relevant today.
Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, is a type of learning process that determines whether an action will be repeated based on reward or punishment.
B.F. Skinner is the founder of operant conditioning, building his theory on the premise that external stimuli affects or controls our behavior. He believed observable behavior was an effective signifier of observable consequences. Skinner developed the ‘Skinner Box’, or the ‘operant conditioning chamber’, where he studied the controlled behaviors of rats and pigeons. He observed his subjects repeating behaviors due to controlled stimuli that led to his theory taking shape.
Let’s take an example to understand operant conditioning:
Say you’re a writer, working on several different kinds of projects at the same time. You took on too much work and now you’re in over your head. To make up for lost time, you decide to paraphrase a few things you find online. Now, this can go two ways:
The operant conditioning theory is based on observable behavior. We are likely to repeat behaviors that lead to positive reinforcement. However, if the consequences are negative or punishing, we may not be keen to repeat our actions.
How do you think this theory can help you learn? Read on.
Operant or instrumental conditioning has influenced learning in distinct ways. Many theories and pathways have been built on aspects of the operant conditioning theory.
Let’s look at a few of these to understand the impact of operant conditioning in a professional and academic context.
Leaders in the workplace affect employee behavior both positively and negatively. If you’ve experienced good leadership, you know how rewarding, motivating and encouraging it can be. For instance, you may have worked on a project and received praise for it. This will encourage you to give your best each time. On the flip side, bad bosses are a reality. A bad manager, someone who takes credit for your work or doesn’t trust you to do your work, can lead to negative reinforcement.
Organizational culture—whether hierarchical or flat—greatly impacts how you behave in a professional context. Your confidence, proactiveness and solution-driven behavior can be a result of positive reinforcement. Similarly, if you shy away from taking initiative or speaking up in meetings, you could be afraid of offending your seniors.
Organizations establish robust, impactful and streamlined performance management systems to make sure employees are rewarded for their work. At the same time, performance cycles help employees identify and improve certain areas of their work. This too involves positive and negative reinforcement that’s developed on instrumental conditioning. For instance, if you receive a raise based on your work, you’ll likely put in more effort into your tasks. Similarly, if your hard work isn’t appreciated, rather undermined, you’ll want to either change teams or jobs.
Nudge Theory is rooted in behavioral science that influences behaviors based on positive reinforcement and feedback. Think back to when you were in school. We got gold stars or an A+ whenever we did great work. At each landmark achievement or realization of a goal, teachers rewarded us with good grades or another reward. This was the motivation that fuelled many students through to college and beyond. Nudge theory works on a similar principle. It reinforces positive behavior with routine nudges to encourage participants.
Economists have applied operant conditioning to the laws of supply and demand. For instance, a drop in price for goods that are non-essential may lead to excess buying. However, a hike in price for essential items will not affect consumer demand. This happens because consumers behave in a certain way depending on whether they are fulfilling their needs or wants. If you enjoy the benefits of expensive face wash, you’re going to buy it regardless of price. In the same vein, there are times when something that was very expensive seems affordable because the price has been slashed—even though the difference may not be significant. It’s about how buying behavior is reinforced.
Operant conditioning can impact our behavior in different contexts. This same theory helps us learn, unlearn and relearn.
If you’ve embarked on a journey of self improvement, upskilling and building new knowledge, you may come across operant conditioning. Many online learning platforms use elements like nudge theory and self-assessments to get learners motivated.
For instance, say that you’re learning how to code. If your first code leads to positive results, you’ll likely find yourself working on it in a more dedicated fashion. However, a failed code can put you off it. That’s why, if you set your own goals at each step of your learning process, you can keep yourself engaged.
Here are ways to apply operant conditioning to your learning journey:
You can create your own nudges to keep yourself on the right track. For instance, every week you can set reminders to do additional reading for a particular concept or framework. Similarly, you can condition yourself to practice what you’re learning. Look up assessments or quick quizzes to make learning fun.
Each time you accomplish your goal or complete an assignment on time, reward yourself with either an off day or a tasty treat. These small rewards can really motivate you to learn more and keep learning. It also reinforces your faith in your learning journey and the effort that you’re putting in.
Assessments are a powerful tool. Often overlooked, a self-assessment can enable you to identify your own improvement areas with honesty. You’ll build your trust in yourself, leading to improved results. But also check in with yourself from time to time to stay on top of your mental health. If it’s getting too much, feel free to take a break.
People you trust and know well are the best mentors and supporters. Seek their support and feedback if you ever hit a roadblock. They can help you get back on track. But at the same time, they can provide honest feedback to motivate you to work.
Always follow up on your goals and don’t leave them right for the last minute. Measure your progress against your goals and see if you’re getting along well. In case you’re behind schedule or aren’t on track, you can revisit your goals and amend them.
The BF Skinner theory is vast, with several aspects to it that require in-depth research. It has left a lasting impression on several industries and is in use even today. Even within organizations, there are certain processes put in place based on his work.
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