Classical/ operant conditioning
Assuming that the learning process was the same in humans as it was in some animals, it became apparent that a) stimuli elicited a behaviour, and b) events had caused the individual to respond to a stimulus in a certain way, i.e., learned behaviour. According to behaviourism, individuals learn through two types of conditioning: classical and operant.
Classical conditioning conditions the individual to produce the existing response to a new stimulus. Individuals learn to associate two concurring stimuli allowing the initial response to stimulus 1 to be transferred to stimulus 2. Therefore, the individual learns to respond in the existing behaviour to the new stimulus, as in the case of Pavlov’s dogs. Watson & Rayner (1920) also carried out an experiment on a young boy known as ‘little Albert’ pairing a loud noise (which made him anxious) with a white rat (which had not previously elicited any negative response). Little Albert’s anxious response (to the loud noise) soon transferred to the rat but sadly it also generalized to other stimuli that resembled the rat, e.g., white, furry rabbit and he soon became extremely anxious when faced with a cuddly, white toy rabbit. [It must be pointed out here that this experiment would of course be unethical by today’s standards.] Such conditioned responses can weaken with time (called ‘extinction’). Classical conditioning has been successfully used to treat phobic anxiety, and classical conditioning techniques are still used today in the treatment of phobias and anxieties.
Operant conditioning conditions the individual through the consequences of the individual’s behaviour. Thus, the individual’s behaviour can be followed by positive reinforcement (e.g., praise, reward) which strengthens the behaviour and increases the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated. If a behaviour is negatively reinforced (e.g., through nagging, avoidance), the response will be reinforced and maintained (e.g., a mum nagging her teenager to tidy up their bedroom!) thus avoiding spiders only makes the fear of them worse. If, however, the behaviour is followed by punishment, the likelihood of repeating the behaviour decreases, and the individual stops the behaviour (to avoid punishment). The term ‘operant conditioning’ was coined by B.F. Skinner (1953) who successfully trained rats to bar press in order to receive food pellets in the ‘Skinner box’. He later worked with pigeons to achieve further results. Today, positive reinforcement is considered to be the most successful method in training e.g., children. Operant conditioning has been very effective in modifying behaviour in individuals with learning difficulties, e.g., autism, and has proved to be a successful method to help people with phobias (e.g., in behaviour therapies, systematic desensitization). In everyday life, it is the foundation of education in today’s schools and also with psychiatric patients in hospitals. The concept of the ‘token economy’ is based on operant conditioning. Originally for psychiatric patients, this system awarded tokens to patients for achieving target behaviour, and these tokens could then be exchanged for a positive reinforcer, e.g., a treat, which ultimately increased the overall quantity of target behaviours. The token economy is now a common feature used in schools and some places of work and further research has endeavoured to find methods to maintain target behaviour and resist extinction once the tokens are no longer being awarded.
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Martin, G.N., Clarkson, N.R., & Buskist,W. (2007). ‘The science of Psychology: Behaviourism’, Psychology (3rd ed.). Pearson Education Limited; England, U.K.