Learning and Conditioning

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Operant Conditioning

Summary Operant Conditioning

Primary and Secondary Reinforcers and Punishers

Reinforcers and punishers are different types of consequences:

  • Primary reinforcers, such as food, water, and caresses, are naturally satisfying.
  • Primary punishers, such as pain and freezing temperatures, are naturally unpleasant.
  • Secondary reinforcers, such as money, fast cars, and good grades, are satisfying because they’ve become associated with primary reinforcers.
  • Secondary punishers, such as failing grades and social disapproval, are unpleasant because they’ve become associated with primary punishers.
  • Secondary reinforcers and punishers are also called conditioned reinforcers and punishers because they arise through classical conditioning.


Shaping is a procedure in which reinforcement is used to guide a response closer and closer to a desired response.

Example: Lisa wants to teach her dog, Rover, to bring her the TV remote control. She places the remote in Rover’s mouth and then sits down in her favorite TV–watching chair. Rover doesn’t know what to do with the remote, and he just drops it on the floor. So Lisa teaches him by first praising him every time he accidentally walks toward her before dropping the remote. He likes the praise, so he starts to walk toward her with the remote more often. Then she praises him only when he brings the remote close to the chair. When he starts doing this often, she praises him only when he manages to bring the remote right up to her. Pretty soon, he brings her the remote regularly, and she has succeeded in shaping a response.

Reinforcement Schedules

A reinforcement schedule is the pattern in which reinforcement is given over time. Reinforcement schedules can be continuous or intermittent. In continuous reinforcement, someone provides reinforcement every time a particular response occurs. Suppose Rover, Lisa’s dog, pushes the remote under her chair. If she finds this amusing and pats him every time he does it, she is providing continuous reinforcement for his behavior. In intermittent or partial reinforcement, someone provides reinforcement on only some of the occasions on which the response occurs.

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