Sometimes reaching a goal can seem almost impossible, but if you employ operant conditioning principles your goal will become much easier to attain. Operant conditioning is a method that strengthens or diminishes behaviors using some sort of reinforcer or punisher. It was developed by the famous behaviorist, B.F. Skinner, who used reinforcement to train pigeons to walk in a figure eight and play ping pong as a way to prove that rewarded behavior will reoccur. The operant conditioning principles B.F. Skinner developed have been used by teachers in schools, sports psychologists, and behaviorists as way to help people learn and reach their goals. This is because operant conditioning is an efficient way to foster enduring learning.
Shaping is one of the operant conditioning principles that you can use to reach your goals. Shaping uses reinforcers to slowly guide someone to toward a desired behavior. A simple example of this is when researchers slowly guide a mouse through a maze using food. Obviously, this idea is put in practice for people a little differently. To use shaping in practical terms, you would set and reward small goals in order to reach a larger goal. For example, if you are trying to lose 10 pounds you might try rewarding yourself for every 2 pounds you lose by putting money in jar that will be used to buy yourself something new when you reach the larger goal of 10 pounds.
Reinforcers are the main tools used in operant conditioning. They can be anything that strengthens a behavior. One confusing thing about reinforcers is there are positive and negative reinforcers. Positive reinforcers increase a behavior by rewarding someone with food, a favorite activity, money, or even something as simple as a hug. Negative reinforcers increase a behavior by removing something that is undesired, like when you turn your alarm clock off to make it stop beeping. Using reinforcers is a great way to condition yourself to do something you want to, to reach a goal, or to stop an unwanted behavior. For instance, if you want to start walking 30 minutes a day you can reward yourself with a small piece of chocolate or your favorite TV show after the walk.
3. Delayed Vs Immediate Reinforcement
Delaying a reward can result in a more mature and lasting form of learning. If you think about it, your paycheck is a delayed reward. However, immediate rewards are often very gratifying and have a powerful draw. For instance, eating a large piece of chocolate cake can be very gratifying while you are eating it. Both types of rewards have their place when you are trying to change a behavior or reach a goal. It is up to you to decide which one will help you the most. Would you benefit more from eating the piece of chocolate immediately after the walk or from watching the TV show after walking every day for a week?
4. Continuous Vs Partial Reinforcement
When you continuously reinforce something, you give a reward every time the behavior occurs. When something is partially reinforced the behavior is only reinforced some of the time; either after a specific number of times the behavior occurs or after an unpredictable number of times the behavior occurs. Research has proved that unpredictability leads to more consistency in a desired behavior. This can be difficult to do on your own, but if want to use partial reinforcement to reach a goal you can have a friend help you. If your goal is to start eating salads every day at lunch have your friends help you. Post your lunch meal to Facebook or Instagram and tell your friends about your goal asking them to unexpectedly reward you with a night out together, your treat but they decide when.
While probably not anyone’s first choice, punishment can be used in operant conditioning. Rather than strengthening a behavior, punishment is used to diminish a behavior. Just like reinforcement, there is positive and negative punishment. Positive punishment is administering something adverse like getting a parking ticket, and negative punishment is taking something away like removing TV privileges. When you are trying to reach a goal, punishment probably isn’t the best choice, but it might work if you are trying to stop an unwanted behavior.
Motivation is a principle that goes a bit beyond operant conditioning and which focuses only on behavior and not the motivation behind a behavior. If you are motivated to do something you will be much more likely to achieve it. There are two types of motivation: intrinsic and extrinsic. Intrinsic motivation is the desire to do something for its own sake. Intrinsic motivation can be very useful if you are trying to start something new like exercise. Pick a form of exercise that you look forward to doing. This way you will actually want to work out. Extrinsic motivation is the desire to perform a certain behavior because of a reward; this can be useful if the intrinsic motivation isn’t strong enough.
7. Reducing Reinforcers
Eventually, you want to be able to go on a walk or eat a salad every day without a reward. To achieve this, you should gradually reduce the reinforcement until the behavior becomes habitual. Then, you should be able to do what you want to without any reward. Once you reach this point, you have received the best reward of all because you will have reached your goal!
It is great to have goals in life, but sometimes they can seem hard to reach. If you have been struggling to meet one of your goals, try implementing a few of these operant conditioning principles. They are very helpful when you are trying to change a behavior. What is a goal you have been wanting reach?
Myers, David G. Psychology. 8th ed. New York - Worth Publishers, 2007. Print