Shaping is a technique that involves rewarding successive approximations to a goal behavior and/or phasing out a target behavior deemed to be undesirable.
When the person or animal exhibits a behavior that is similar to the goal behavior, it is rewarded. This process is repeated as the behavior exhibited gets closer and closer to the target.
Examples of shaping can be seen in training animals, phasing out phobias, and learning a second language.
Shaping Definition and Origins
Shaping has its roots in the Law of Effect proposed by Thorndike (1905) and principles of Operant Conditioning by Skinner (1965).
Both theories emphasize the role of rewards and punishments to increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.
Skinner believed that shaping was such a powerful technique that he once said:
“Give me anyone and I can shape them into anything.”
John Watson, another famous scholar, took the sentiment a bit further:
“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select — doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors.”
Shaping can occur through continual reinforcement of behaviors and positive behaviors are sustained through partial reinforcement where rewards and punishments become more intermittent, sporadic, or spaced-out.
Case Study of Psychological Shaping: B.F Skinner and His Pigeon
Skinner conducted hundreds of animal experiments to investigate the power and nuances of Operant Conditioning and shaping. He often used rats and pigeons because they were small, easy to care for, and highly responsive to reinforcement.
In this famous video, Skinner demonstrates the power of shaping by conditioning a pigeon to turn in a full circle.
At first, he rewards successive approximations in the form of a partial turn. Once that behavior has been established, the pigeon must turn a little further to receive the reward.
In less than a minute, the pigeon has been shaped to turn in a full circle.
Shaping Examples in Psychology
- Teaching Children Positive Habits: We use shaping when we teach a child habits like washing their hands or putting away toys. Generally, a parent will reward them with stickers for completing small tasks. Over time, they will learn instinctively to do the task without receiving the reward.
- Shaping Consumer Behaviors: A major credit card company might shape its consumers’ behaviors by offering customers “cash-back” incentives if they spend a certain amount each month. If they spend a little more, the incentive increases slightly. And if they spend even more, they may receive a small gift from a prestigious brand.
- In the Workplace: Employers might shape an employee’s productivity by providing positive feedback and rewards for when they do positive work. An employer might do this through a commission structure or even having them follow a more experienced employee around so they learn the skills and tricks of the trade.
- University Student’s Study Habits: When university students want to become better at studying, they may actively work on shaping their own study habits. This might include providing yourself rewards for studying a certain amount of hours a day or achieving benchmark grades or test scores.
- Building Exercise Habits: A personal trainer might shape a person’s exercise routine by gradually training them on correct technique. Over time, their poor technique will slowly fade away and it will be replaced with a more sound technique.
- In a Marriage: Take this example: ehen Steward put his dirty socks in the laundry basket, his wife gave him a big kiss on the cheek. One day, he put his clothes from the gym in the basket too, and got another kiss. Later that week after mowing the lawn and putting his sweaty t-shirt and shorts in the basket, he got a huge kiss. By the end of the month, he was well-trained to put all his dirty clothes in the basket.
- Encouraging Homework: A parent might shape their children into self-discipline when doing homework. For example, a child can spell at least 3 out of 10 new words, so her mother lets her play outside. The next week, she can play outside after correctly spelling 5, and then 7 of the new words. At the end of the third week, she is able to spell all 10 of the new words (and she is very happy about that). Before long, she is working on her spelling without the need for the incentive to play.
- Teaching Social Skills: Shaping is often used when teaching people with autism social skills and active listening. They might be given explicit positive reinforcement for engaging in social skills like making eye contact and asking engaged questions.
- Training a Dog: If a dog has a bad habit of jumping up and down whenever the owner approaches the back door, you might need to re-shape its behavior. You might start a shaping program: standing still at the door barking gets a reward; then, once it’s achieved, standing still at the door quietly gets a reward; then, sitting quietly and waiting for the door to open is rewarded. Here, a new behavior has been shaped into the dog.
- Developing Self-Confidence: You could shape a person’s self-confidence by gradually encouraging them to take on new challenges. At first, it might be as simple as confidently making a coffee order. But as you step-up the challenges, you can get them closer to the goal behavior of being a generally confident person.
- Developing Leadership Skills: People aren’t born with leadership skills. They’re shaped over time. You might start with a lower-level job where you need to learn effective communication. As you get small promotions, your boss will give you more and more tasks where you are taught leadership, until you’re effective at delegation, teaching, and being supportive of your team.
- Shaping a Love of Reading: Parents shape love of reading by reading to their children before bed every night. Then, as the child starts to learn to read, they will give them fun comic books or books on topics they love. Before long, they’ll have a generalized love of reading.
- Overcoming Phobias: Shaping can help people overcome their phobias by gradually exposing them to their fears in a controlled environment. For example, a person with a fear of spiders might start by looking at pictures of spiders and progress to holding a toy spider until they can tolerate being around real spiders.
- Developing Musical Skills: Shaping can help develop musical skills by gradually building on a person’s abilities. A music teacher might start by teaching simple songs and gradually introduce more complex music. They might also use positive reinforcement to encourage the student to practice more often.
- Building Financial Habits: Shaping can help build good financial habits by gradually increasing a person’s financial responsibility. For instance, a person might start by saving a small amount of money each month and gradually increase their savings over time. As they see the benefits of saving, they will be more likely to continue to save without the need for external incentives.
Applications of Shaping in Psychology
1. Treatment of Phobias
Successive approximations are often used in the process of treating phobias. Since taking a person with a fear of heights to the roof of the nearest skyscraper will be ineffective (and probably unethical for psychological research), a therapist might start a little lower on the patient’s fear continuum.
This could be so simple as having the patient climb a small foot ladder during a therapy session. At first, this may be quite upsetting to someone with a well-ingrained fear.
The patient will practice relaxation techniques while at the first rung until they feel completely comfortable. That may take several sessions.
Over the next several weeks and maybe months, the patient will attempt and succeed at increasingly challenging heights; being rewarded for attempts and eventual successes all along the way.
Even if it takes a full year or more, overcoming a debilitating phobia is well worth the time and effort. Eventually, it will be gone, which is what psychologists call the point of extinction.
2. Shaping Animal Behavior
Whether it involves training an animal for a role in a Hollywood movie, or pet owners teaching their dog a few tricks, rewarding successive approximations of a goal behavior is standard procedure.
Since the goal behavior may be complex, such as a dog rolling over, it is necessary to start small.
So, the trainer starts by rewarding a behavior that is close to the target. In this case, if the dog lays down, it will be rewarded. When that step has been mastered, the trainer encourages the dog to roll.
Whenever the dog exhibits a slight roll to one side, even a partial roll, it is rewarded.
Eventually, the dog will learn to lay down and roll all the way over.
3. Learning How To Speak
The brain of a newborn infant is capable of learning any language on the planet with sufficient shaping.
Over time, the brain adapts to the sounds of the specific language it is exposed to from the environment. As the baby begins to utter a few sounds, mom and dad reward effort with affectionate smiles and gestures.
As the baby grows to become a toddler and attempts to speak more complex words and phrases, the parents correct grammar mistakes and reinforce proper pronunciation.
This process continues at home for the next few years. Then teachers take over when the child enters kindergarten. Once primary school starts, the standards continue to be raised and children have to perform at increasingly higher levels.
Eventually, learning to speak involves intensive grammar lessons and less flexibility in acceptable use of the language.
The bar is continuously raised as the school system shapes student behavior in a process of successive approximations that lasts for nearly two decades.
4. Children’s Temper Tantrums
The “terrible twos” might be the most challenging years of parenting for any mom and dad, right up there with the “terrible teens” and eventually followed by the “irritating in-laws.”
However, careful observation of the toddler/parent interaction during a typical dinner-time scenario demonstrates shaping.
The mother places part of a green bean on a spoon and attempts to feed the child. The toddler cries loudly so she takes the spoon away. The child smiles at mom.
The determined mother tries again, but as soon as she reaches for a bean, the child cries. To stop the crying, she puts the bean back on the plate. The child smiles and then looks at the jar of pudding.
So, mom offers a spoonful of pudding. The toddler rewards the mother’s behavior by smiling and giggling. The mother offers another spoonful and is rewarded once again.
Over the course of a few minutes, the mother’s behavior has been shaped from attempting to feed the toddler unwanted green beans, to removing the beans from the scene completely, to feeding the child pudding.
Of course, it is unlikely that the toddler is familiar with the most recent research on shaping, but some children can be very intuitive.
Shaping is an Operant Conditioning technique that involves rewarding actions that are closer and closer to the goal behavior. If a person or animal displays a behavior that is similar to the target, they are rewarded.
Each time the behavior displayed is progressively more similar to the target, a reward is administered. This is called “successive approximations.”
Classroom teachers use some version of shaping every day, while special education teachers apply shaping principles for children with behavioral or learning disorders.
Companies and those in leadership positions also use shaping techniques to encourage customers to spend more money and employees to be more productive.
In personal relationships, spouses may unknowingly administer shaping to encourage behavior they desire, while toddlers may intuitively shape parental behavior to feed them the food they prefer.
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Skinner, B. F. (1958). Reinforcement today. American Psychologist, 13(3), 94–99.
Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.
Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.