Cesar Millan (aka the "Dog Whisperer"). Distressed mothers. Police officers. We've all seen individuals and institutions, in public and private settings, deal with undesirable behavior in different ways. Operant conditioning is a learning procedure in which the probability of a paricular behavior occuring is increased or decreased, based on the consequence (positive or negative) that is administered.
A behavior is followed by a pleasant stimulus, which increases the probability of that behavior.
A behavior is followed by the removal of an unpleasant stimulus, which increases the probability of that behavior.
A behavior is followed by an unpleasant stimulus, which decreases the probability of that behavior.
A behavior is followed by the removal of a pleasant stimulus, which decreases the probability of that behavior.
An example: Little Billy throws a temper tantrum every time his mother puts him in a shopping cart when she enters the local grocery store. There are four ways in which Little Billy's mother could deal with this undesirable behavior.
Positive Reinforcement: Little Billy is given a lollipop (or a toy, or something else to keep him satisfied).
Negative Reinforcement: Little Billy is removed from the shopping cart (and allowed to run around).
Unfortunately for the mother, both methods of reinforcement are reinforcing the UNDESIRABLE behavior in this case. She is essentially encouraging Little Billy to throw a temper tantrum every time she puts him in a shopping cart, because he knows that he will either be given a lollipop, or be removed from the shopping cart altogether. In short, this is a temporary solution to the problem, and can lead to children becoming spoiled.
Positive Punishment: Little Billy is given a spanking.
Negative Punishment: Little Billy loses his TV-watching privileges.
On the other side of the coin, these methods could be both highly effective or highly ineffective, depending on how consistently the mother uses these forms of punishment (and assuming that she will not escalate to beating or otherwise abusing/neglecting Little Billy).
So which form of operant conditioning should we use?! The answer is simple, yet (surprisingly) rarely used: A combination of both reinforcement and punishment. Let's address all three examples now.
1) Cesar Millan
Any dog-lovers reading this entry? What do you do if your puppy pees on the white carpet? Not only do you punish your dog ("BAD DOG!!!"), but you also reinforce good behavior ("You're such a gooood boy/girl!" and a treat), such as peeing outside or on the puppy pads. Victoria Stilwell (host of "It's Me or the Dog" on Animal Planet) uses positive reinforcement to correct the same aggressive behavior that Cesar Millan attempts to. Some critics argue that Cesar Millan should use more positive reinforcement when dealing with troublesome dogs, and that he uses too many positive punishment techniques, such as forcing aggressive dogs into submission by pinning them to the ground on their sides. So which famous dog trainer should be trusted? Mrs. Stilwell, Mr. Millan, both, or neither?
2) Distressed Mothers
It's easy for mothers to either give in to their child's demands, or use a great deal of force to suppress their children's undesirable behavior. Why not a combination of the two? Punish the undesirable behavior, then reward the child once they are behaving appropriately? Many mothers would argue that this is easier said than done. It's not easy to immediately notice and reinforce positive behavior, especially when the parent(s) are busy with work, household chores, and other tasks. Nor is it easy to immediately punish negative behavior, with the same intensity and consistency every time. What other factors could prevent or make it more difficult for parents to "train" their children effectively?
3) Police Officers
Police officers, prison wardens, etc. undeniably use a great deal of positive and negative punishment when dealing with offenders. Speeding drivers receive tickets. Criminals lose their freedom when incarcerated. Given the dangerous, and sometimes violent nature of these crimes, who can blame police officers and prison wardens from using these punishing techniques? But as one subscriber quoted in a recent journal entry, "prison in its current state isn't rehabilitating, which is really what it should be doing, instead it provides a prime environment for gang related activities" (Robin Herman, Khalil Osiris, Tony Villa Sr., The Psychology of Incarceration). Is there any way to incorporate positive reinforcement into the current prison system?
Your thoughts regarding all three examples are welcomed. Let this information not only entertain you, but also prompt you to discuss with other subscribers.