Behavioral conditioning is a process through which behavior is shaped or altered through rewards or punishments. It is a principle in behaviorist psychology.
Behavioral conditioning is generally divided into two parts: operant conditioning and classical conditioning.
- Operant conditioning , also known as instrumental learning, focuses on using positive or negative reinforcements to encourage or discourage certain behaviors (Domjan & Burkhard, 2018). For instance, a student might study hard and achieve a good grade (positive reinforcement) or avoid excessive video gaming to prevent parental disapproval (negative punishment).
- Classical Conditioning is a process discovered by Ivan Pavlov that conditions involuntary responses (also known as the Pavlovian response). For example, a dog salivating at the sound of a bell (initially associated with food) demonstrates this. Notably, these types of conditioned responses might form associations that lead to fears or phobias.
Also prominent in the realm of behavioral conditioning is Observational Learning. This process involves individuals learning by watching others around them (Bandura, 1986). A child might see their sibling tidy their room and receive praise, so the child also cleans their room, hoping for praise.
Types of Behavioral Conditioning
Operant Conditioning, first coined by B.F. Skinner, is fundamentally a learning process through which new behaviors are acquired and existing behaviors are reinforced through consequences.
In essence, this form of conditioning utilizes rewards (positive reinforcement) and punishments to mold behavior (Chance, 2013; Watson, 2017).
For example, an employee might work more efficiently if he knows that a job well-done leads to a commending review by his manager (i.e., a reward). Likewise, if the same employee knows that slacking off might result in a reprimand, he might step up his productivity to avoid it (a punishment).
Classical Conditioning, derived from the works of Ivan Pavlov, is chiefly a learning process involving the pairing of stimuli to induce an automatic response (Pavlov, 1927).
In essence, the behavior being conditioned is involuntary and reactive. A commonly referenced example is Pavlov’s work where the sound of a bell was paired with food for a dog until the dog began to salivate at merely the sound of the bell (Alisic, 2014).
One demonstrable difference between operant and classical conditioning rests in the type of behaviors they influence.
In short, operant conditioning affects voluntary, conscious behaviors, while classical conditioning deals with instinctive, involuntary responses.
Similarities and Differences
Operant and classical conditioning are foundational psychological concepts with significant overlaps.
However, they describe two slightly different method of learning. Fundamentally, operant conditioning involves a stimulus, a response, and a reward or a punishment, while classical conditioning comprises an unconditioned stimulus, an unconditioned response, a conditioned stimulus, and a conditioned response (Domjan & Burkhard, 2018).
Both classical and operant conditioning play major roles in the field of psychology, offering useful insights into the complexity of human behavior. Their applications vary widely, from managing classroom discipline to behavioral therapy and habit formation, underscoring their multifaceted utilities in shaping behaviors (Chance, 2013).
By understanding these two distinct forms of behavioral conditioning, it’s possible to establish effective strategies for behavior modification at both individual and community levels.
Behavioral Conditioning Examples
- Dog Training: A dog trainer could use a whistle as a stimulus to teach the dog to sit. Each time the dog successfully sits when the whistle blew, it receives a treat (positive reinforcement). Through this process, the dog quickly learns to respond to the whistle.
- Child Discipline: To improve manners at the dining table, a parent could create a rule where any inappropriate behavior means no dessert after dinner (negative punishment). The child swiftly learns that to enjoy the sweet treat, respectful behavior at the table is required. Over time, this could result in a permanent positive change in the child’s behavior.
- Good Grades Rewards: A teacher could establish a system whereby good grades equate to extra credit or privileges. This encourages students to study harder to receive these benefits (positive reinforcement). Consequently, students become conditioned to work hard and do well in their studies regularly.
- Seat Belt Reminder: The irritating beeping sound made by the car when a seat belt is not fastened prompts the driver to put on their seat belt. Over time, the driver becomes used to fastening their seat belt to avoid the annoying beeping noise (negative reinforcement). This conditions a safe habit of wearing a seat belt whenever in a car.
- Pavlov’s Dogs: Ivan Pavlov demonstrated classical conditioning by pairing the sound of a bell with feeding dogs. Soon, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell, even when food was absent. This conditioned the dog’s automatic response to the bell.
- Hard Work Lead to Promotion: An employee sees a colleague who consistently does well getting promoted. Therefore, they are motivated to start working as hard for a similar outcome (observational learning). Through this, their work ethic could improve.
- Food Advertising: Advertisements often pair imagery of delicious food with happy, satisfied people. Viewers could become conditioned to associate that brand’s food with happiness (classical conditioning). Subsequently, they might feel a craving for that food when desiring happiness.
- Fire Drill: In schools or workplaces, a regular fire drill conditions people to exit the building safely when they hear the fire alarm. Over time, the sound of the fire alarm automatically-elicits an orderly exit (classical conditioning). This reinforces an instinctive, safe response to potential danger.
- Litter Training Cats: When a kitten uses a litter box properly, owners give it affection or a treat. The kitten learns to associate using the litter box with a reward (positive reinforcement). This conditions the kitten to always use the litter box.
- Retail Sales: Many retailers condition customers to expect major sales around holidays. Consequently, consumers are conditioned to save their shopping for these times (classical conditioning). This benefits both the retailers and shoppers.
- Mail Delivery for Dogs: Dogs often react to the arrival of the mailman by barking. Over time, even the sight of the mailbox might prompt the dog to bark (classical conditioning). This could lead to a consistent behavioral reaction in the dog.
- Studying Habits: A student who studies regularly before tests and consistently gets good grades becomes conditioned to study more. The good grades act as a positive reinforcement for their studying behavior. Over time, this creates a consistent study habit.
- Exercise Routine: Committing to regular exercise often results in feeling more energetic and healthy. These benefits serve as a positive reinforcement, conditioning the person to continue exercising regularly. Over time, one is conditioned to maintain the routine to achieve these positive feelings.
- Anticipating Stoplight Colors: Drivers are conditioned to slow down when they see a yellow traffic light and to stop when it turns red. Through consistent experience, drivers are conditioned to respond appropriately to each light (classical conditioning). This maintains harmony and safety on roads.
- Smartphone Checking: The cue of receiving a notification prompts most smartphone owners to check their device. This frequent checking is encouraged by intermittent reinforcements – sometimes checking notifications brings desirable messages (operant conditioning). As a result, there is often a compulsive need to check the phone frequently.
Key Concepts in Behavioral Conditioning
Behaviorism has a long and illustrious history of scholarly research, which has led to a long list of key concepts, including those outlined below:
- Unconditioned Stimulus (US): An unconditioned stimulus is fundamentally a naturally occurring stimulus that evokes an automatic response. For instance, the smell of food triggering hunger pangs. In every circumstance, no learning is needed for this stimulus to prompt this response.
- Unconditioned Response (UR): An unconditioned response refers to the natural, automatic reaction to an unconditioned stimulus. If we consider the smell of food as the unconditioned stimulus, the hunger it triggers is our unconditioned response. It’s a reflexive process, requiring no prior learning.
- Conditioned Stimulus (CS): A conditioned stimulus is an initially neutral stimulus that, after being repeatedly paired with an unconditioned stimulus, evokes a conditioned response. The classical example includes Pavlov’s bell–on its own, a bell will not cause a dog to salivate, but after repeatedly sounding the bell when food is presented, the bell becomes a conditioned stimulus. It ultimately earns the power to trigger the response initially linked with the unconditioned stimulus.
- Conditioned Response (CR): A conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral but now conditioned stimulus. Using Pavlov’s experiment, the dog salivating at the sound of the bell (with no food present) would be exhibiting a conditioned response. Essentially, the conditioned response is the reflection of the learning that has occurred.
- Positive Punishment: This is a situation where an undesirable or unpleasant consequence is added after a behavior to decrease that behavior’s frequency. For example, receiving a parking fine after parking illegally is a positive punishment because the unpleasant situation (the fine) is introduced. Resultantly, the behavior (illegal parking) would likely decrease.
- Negative Punishment: Here, a desirable outcome or item is taken away after a behavior to decrease that behavior’s frequency. If a tech-loving teenager is grounded from their video games as a consequence for neglecting their homework, that’s negative punishment. The hope is, this will discourage the teenager from ignoring their studies in the future.
- Extinction: Extinction is the process where a conditioned response gradually weakens and eventually disappears when the conditioned stimulus is consistently presented without the unconditioned stimulus. If Pavlov’s bell kept ringing without any food presented, the dog’s salivation response to the bell would gradually extinguish. Extinction shows that without reinforcement, conditioned behaviors will eventually cease.
- Stimulus Discrimination: This happens when an organism learns to respond differently to various stimuli that are similar but not identical. A dog, for instance, who has been trained to sit at the command “sit” must discriminate this command from similar sounding words like “fit” or “hit.” It must learn to respond only to the stimulus “sit.”
- Stimulus Generalization: This is when an organism responds in the same way to similar stimuli. For instance, a child who has been conditioned to fear a loud motorcycle might exhibit the same fearful response upon hearing a loud truck. Because the two stimuli (motorcycle and truck noises) are similar, the child generalizes the response from one to the other.
- Shaping: Shaping is a process used in operant conditioning where successive approximations of the desired behavior are reinforced. For example, if you’re training a dog to roll over, initially you might reward it for lying down, then for lying on its side, then for rolling slightly, and finally for completing a full roll over. Each close approximation of the final behavior is reinforced, gradually shaping the desired behavior.
- Secondary Reinforcement: This is when a stimulus which initially holds no value, gains its power to reinforce through association with a primary reinforcer. Money is a classic example of a secondary reinforcer – while it has no inherent value, its ability to purchase food, shelter, and other primary reinforcers gives it reinforcing power. Hence, we are conditioned to work and achieve for monetary gain.
- Primary Reinforcement: A primary reinforcer is a stimulus that inherently reinforces behavior because it fulfills a basic, natural need for survival. Food, water, sleep, and the relief of discomfort are typical examples. When behaviors lead to any of these outcomes being achieved, those behaviors are more likely to repeat.
- Schedule of Reinforcement: This refers to how often a certain behavior is reinforced. Schedules might be continuous (every behavior is reinforced) or intermittent (only some instances of the behavior are reinforced). The type of schedule can significantly impact the accumulation and extinction of the conditioned behavior.
- Latent Learning: This is the type of learning that occurs without a clear reinforcement, yet is not demonstrated until there is motivation to do so. A child might learn by observing their parents cooking, but might not demonstrate this knowledge until later when they have a need to cook. Such learning remains “latent” until the right motivation triggers its expression.
- Habituation: This is a type of learning in which an organism reduces its response to a constantly repeated, non-threatening stimulus. For example, a person who moves to a noisy city might initially find the city noise disturbing, but over time they become accustomed to it and stop noticing it – this is habituation. It’s an adaptive trait that helps us filter out unimportant stimuli from our environment.
- Systematic Desensitization: This is a type of behavior therapy used to help people overcome phobias and anxiety disorders. It involves exposing individuals to their feared object or situation, gradually and in a controlled way, while teaching them relaxation techniques. Over time, they ideally become desensitized, meaning the fear or anxiety response lessens.
- Observational Learning: This is a type of learning that occurs by watching others. Bandura’s “Bobo Doll” experiment, demonstrated that children can learn aggressive behaviors just by witnessing them. The children observed adults interacting with a Bobo Doll aggressively and later reproduced those same actions, exhibiting observational learning.
Criticisms of Behavioral Conditioning Theory
Behavioral conditioning, though widely used and incredibly impactful, does come with its share of criticisms.
One prominent critique hinges on the perspective that it oversimplifies the complexity of human behavior (Baum, 2017).
By focusing primarily on observable behavior and largely ignoring cognitive processes, critics argue that behavioral conditioning may provide an incomplete understanding of behavior causation.
For example, the role of emotions, thoughts, and self-awareness in shaping behavior, which cannot be directly observed, might be overlooked in favor of more measurable behavioral outcomes.
Another critique centers on behavioral conditioning’s emphasis on environmental influence, which some scholars assert undervalues inherent, biologically-based dispositions (Mischel, 2013).
While it’s well established that the environment plays a significant role in behavior shaping, compelling evidence increasingly acknowledges the critical role of genetics in behavior determination.
Interestingly, underlying genotypes can modulate behavioral responses to conditioning, as revealed by genetic variation in associative learning capabilities within populations (Mery & Kawecki, 2005).
Ethical considerations also surface in discussions about behavioral conditioning. Certain conditioning techniques, particularly punishments, possess potential for misuse or abuse, which raises questions about their ethical appropriateness (Axelrod, 2017).
It’s also contested whether eliciting involuntary responses or shaping behavior through manipulation aligns with respecting individual autonomy.
Furthermore, in the context of therapy, concerns arise regarding client consent and autonomy when applying conditioning strategies (Corrigan, 2015).
Lastly, there’s a concern about the lasting efficacy of behavioral conditioning. It’s been noted that behaviors learned through conditioning, especially those gained via continuous reinforcement, might not persist in the reinforcement’s absence, questioning the reliability of these learned behaviors (Lattal & Perone, 1998).
While behavioral conditioning has enriched our understanding of human behavior, it’s important to consider these criticisms when employing conditioning techniques. A balanced, thoughtful, and nuanced application of behavioral conditioning in various contexts remains key to respecting its advantages and addressing its potential limitations.
Alisic, E. (2014). Rates of post-traumatic stress disorder in trauma-exposed children and adolescents: meta-analysis. The British Journal of Psychiatry. 204(5) doi: https://doi.org/10.1192/bjp.bp.113.131227
Axelrod, S. (2017). Behaviorism, Private Events, and the Molar View of Behavior. The Behavior Analyst, 40(1), 167–180. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1007/BF03392249
Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. London: Prentice-Hall.
Baum, W. M. (2017). Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, culture, and evolution (3rd ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons.
Chance, P. (2013). Learning and behavior (7th ed.). New Jersey: Cengage Learning.
Corrigan, P. W. (2015). Best practices: strategic stigma change (SSC): five principles for social marketing campaigns to reduce stigma. Psychiatric Services, 66(8), 824-826. Doi: https://doi.org/10.1176/ps.62.8.pss6208_0824
Domjan, M., & Burkhard, B. (2018). The principles of learning and behavior (8th ed.). Wadsworth: Cengage Learning.
Lattal, K. A., & Perone, M. (1998). Handbook of research methods in human operant behavior. Springer Science & Business Media.
Mery, F., & Kawecki, T. J. (2005). A Cost of Long-Term Memory in Drosophila. Science, 308(5725), 1148.
Mischel, W. (2013). Personality and assessment. London: Psychology Press.
Pavlov, I. (1927). Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Watson, J. B. (2017). Behaviorism. Read Books Ltd.
Dr. Chris Drew is the founder of the Helpful Professor. He holds a PhD in education and has published over 20 articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education. [Image Descriptor: Photo of Chris]