Operant or Instrumental conditioning theory is one of the two types of learning that have been studied and researched extensively. The other type of learning apart from the instrumental theory of learning is called Classical Conditioning,
Both types of learning have a significant impact on human behavior. These types of conditioning not only bring about a permanent change in human behavior but also help in understanding how learning takes place in humans.
In this article, we will talk about the instrumental theory of learning.
What is Instrumental Conditioning Theory of Learning?
The theory of instrumental conditioning states is a form of learning that links a specific behavior with the happening of an event. According to instrumental conditioning theory, changes in an individual’s behavior depend on the outcome of an event or a stimulus.
Thus, if events preceding a behavior lead to favorable outcomes, then such a or is likely to be repeated in the future. However, if events preceding the behavior result in negative outcomes, the behaviors that follow such events are less likely to be repeated in the future.
For example, a child is likely to participate in class if his participation is followed by an appreciation by the teacher. Likewise, a child is less likely to bully other students in class if such a behavior is followed by the teacher scolding or warning him for displaying such behavior.
Further, there are four principles of instrumental conditioning that determine the likelihood of the recurrence of a behavior in future. These are as follows:
- Positive Reinforcement
The possibility of occurrence of a behavior with respect to a stimulus increases if such a behavior leads to positive outcomes.
- Negative reinforcement
Negative reinforcement is nothing but the stimulus leading to unfavorable outcomes . Thus, these negative consequence increase the likelihood of avoiding the behaviors that follow the stimulus.
- Postive Punishment
Positive punishment refers to decrease in the occurence of a behavior that follows a stimulus as such a behaviour results in negative outcomes.
- Negative Punishment
Negative punishment refers to a decrease in the occurence of a behavior in respect of a stimulus as the pleasant consequence as a result of such a behavior is removed.
B.F. Skinner – Father of Operant or Instrumental Conditioning Theory
B.F. Skinner was the American psychologist and behaviorist who founded the theory of operant conditioning. According to him, there are two types of behavior. These include respondent and operant behavior.
Respondent behavior refers to the immediate response of a person to a stimulus in the environment. For instance, closing your eyes when it’s windy and dust enters your eyes. This is also called reflexive behavior.
Operant behavior, on the other hand, is something that is not reflexive. Rather, it is a behavior that is generated by humans. Thus, people operate on the environment by displaying such behaviors. For example, eating when you feel hungry is a behavior that is not compelled on you by the environment. In fact, it is a behavior that is generated by you.
History of Operant Conditioning
Conditioning is a concept that behaviorists introduced in the 1920s. According to them, all human behavior is the outcome of their experiences. This was in contrast to the instinct-based theory which stated that human behavior was driven by human instincts.
Thus, behaviorism is a school of thought that states that all human behavior is driven by the experiences of individuals.
Then came associationism that claimed that humans associated two events. In other words, thinking about one event makes them automatically think about another.
Next came Edward Lee Thorndike’s Law of Effect. This theory stated that humans make a number of responses to a given situation. However, they choose a response that brings a satisfactory state of affairs for the human entities. Thus, the bond between a stimulus and a response strengthened if such a stimulus generated a response that was rewarding for the living entity. Likewise, such a connection weakened if the stimulus generated a response that lead to unsatisfactory state of affairs.
Much like Thorndike who conducted a number of experiments, B.F. Skinner conducted experiments and designed devices like Skinner Box and Cumulative Recorder. While Skinner Box helped him to conduct experiments on rats, Cumulative Recorder produced graphical records that provided data for finding out the impact on response rates of various reinforcement schedules.