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Operant Conditioning

Jesse Dallery, Brantley Jarvis and Allison Kurti

in Psychology

ISBN: 9780199828340
Published online November 2011 | | DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0043
Operant Conditioning

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The study of operant conditioning represents a natural-science approach to understanding the causes of goal-directed behavior. Operant behavior produces changes in the physical or social environment, and these consequences influence whether such behavior occurs in the future. Thus, operant behavior is selected by its consequences. The basic unit of analysis in the operant framework is the operant, or operant class, which is a class of activities that produces the same consequence. For example, an operant such as joke telling is shaped and maintained by positive social consequences (e.g., laughter) or extinguished by negative social consequences (e.g., silence). Selection of operant behavior is analogous to the selection of biological traits via natural selection. The environment (physical, social, cultural) selects behavior via the processes of reinforcement and punishment. Stimuli present when these processes occur become occasioning or discriminative stimuli for particular operants. More complex forms of learning, such as conceptual and symbolic behavior, are also considered to be forms of operant behavior. Whether simple or complex, operant behavior is always included within a three-term contingency: discriminative stimulus, operant behavior, and reinforcing or punishing consequence. The three-term contingency is deceptively simple, as the probabilities of occurrence represented by each term can vary over time. In addition, the under-represented role of verbal behavior further enriches and complicates the picture of human behavior. From its inception, the operant analysis has also included private behavior such as thoughts, feelings, and other aspects of the “inside story.” The operant framework has led to a number of extensions and applications to human affairs, including the treatment of developmental disorders, interventions for psychopathology, teaching technologies for classrooms, strategies to improve behavior in business and occupational settings, and approaches to reduce substance use and abuse. Although less empirical in nature, the operant framework has also been extended to explanations of cultural behavior and future threats posed by consumerism, nuclear proliferation, and other human rights and social justice issues. Operant conditioning has a long history of being mischaracterized, and several responses to these claims have appeared in the literature.

Article.  12060 words. 

Subjects: psychology ; cognitive psychology ; developmental psychology ; health psychology ; history and systems in psychology ; school and educational psychology ; social psychology

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