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Learning (Video 8)

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Learning is the eighth program in the DISCOVERING PSYCHOLOGY series. This program discusses the basic principles of how we learn; classical, instrumental, and operant conditioning; and the role that stimuli and consequences play in learned behavior and habits. You’ll explore how renowned researchers Ivan Pavlov, B. F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike, and John B. Watson contributed to what we know about human and animal learning.

In the study of behavior, operant behavior is affected by the environment, and operative conditioning is used to reinforce behavioral change. Behavioral psychologist Dr. Howard Rachlin used operant conditioning to study ways of developing self-control in pigeons.

Dr. Rachlin chose to use pigeons because they can be a particularly impulsive subject. The experiment prompted the pigeons to peck one button once for a small bit of food, and another button 15 times for a larger amount. When presented with a choice between a small but immediate portion of food or a large but delayed portion of food, pigeons chose the small, short-term reward. But when Dr. Rachlin’s team put a pigeon in a box with two buttons that both required 15 pecks for any amount of food at all, the pigeon ultimately chose the button that offered the larger amount.

Eventually, the pigeons learned to choose a larger amount of food by pecking a button 15 times and then waiting four seconds for the food, as opposed to choosing a more immediate but smaller reward. Dr. Rachlin’s experiment illustrated that a pattern of behavior can reinforce the choices that lead to self-control. Parallel human experiences include healthy behavioral changes such as cultivating good exercise habits, quitting smoking, or finding alternative outlets for anger and stress.

Mary Ann Chapman expands on Dr. Rachlin’s findings, and how the principles of operant conditioning can be used to overcome bad habits or addictions. (Scroll down past the header for the article.)

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Written by Joseph Eulo

June 8, 2008 at 1:21 am