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Man or Machine

Updated on December 16, 2011

It is easy to latch on to generalizations- to reduce everything to one simple answer. 'It's all sex...' we tend to say. And, until recently, many behaviorist psychologists believed that learning was 'all conditioning'. They thought that all learning took place through conditioned responses and reinforcement-classical or operant conditioning.

A growing school now accepts that, although conditioning accounts for much of human behavior, it is not responsible for it all. Think of a small child who has learned to cross a busy road cautiously by a conditioned set of prohibitions instilled by fear.

As the child grows older, it needs to learn for itself a true understanding of the complexities of traffic-that earlier conditioning has to be removed.

Thus, although we are mechanical in a large part of our behavior and learning, this is probably not the only way in which we learn (if it were, we should be reduced to the state of automata or robots). But it is often difficult to say which component - conditioning or reasoned choice - dominates any particular behavior. For example, take the man who has been conditioned to behave in an obsequious way towards his social superiors. His training may have given him no option but to behave in this manner. On the other hand, he may have come to the realization that a wider range of behavior is open to him and decided that pandering to his superiors would be the most productive choice.

A similar thing could be said of tantrum children. Their constant fiery outbursts may be conditioned responses, or calculated devices which they have found to be useful.

Take Your Cue

Rather than responding rigidly to direct stimuli, we seem to be able to use selectivity in our behavior. Some psychologists are now using the words 'cues' or 'signals' in place of the term 'stimuli'- and these cues that we receive may or may not be acted upon.

This exercising of choice is not confined to mature humans. Even animals have been shown to digress from the 'stimulus response' path. Two psychologists, Breland and Breland, described a number of 'disobedient' subjects in their animal experiments. There was the chicken who would not sit still, the raccoon who refused to put money into a slot, rabbits who balked at approaching the feeder and the stubborn pig who just would not put tokens into a piggy bank...

Putting it to the Test

B.F. Skinner, who firmly believes that without reinforcement there would be no learning, devised a teaching machine that delivered sweets every time a correct response was made by a child who was being taught. It soon became clear, however, that the child progressed just as quickly with no reward at all. The satisfaction of learning was sufficient reinforcement on its own.

This realization has been put to practical use by modern educationalists. Teaching machines have been invented not to deliver goodies but to flash lights, play merry jingles or ring bells each time students perform satisfactorily. Immediate feedback of this nature is beneficial to learning. And, predictably, enthusiastic learning is encouraged by prompt knowledge of examination results rather than the customary long delays.

Shaping Behavior

There are three kinds of reinforcement: positive, negative, and punishment. Positive reinforcement is the giving of a reward after a wanted response so that it is more likely to occur again. Negative reinforcement consists of providing some unpleasant stimulus that is only removed when the wanted response is made. Punishment means applying an unpleasant stimulus after a response that is not wanted.

Research with animals has shown that positive reinforcement is overwhelmingly the most effective form of shaping behavior.

Negative reinforcement is unreliable in its effectiveness, and punishment often produces undesired side-effects.

Continue reading: How Should Punishment Be Used

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