Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning: Definition, 6 Types (Explained)

What is Reinforcement?

Reinforcement in operant conditioning is the reward given to a subject (rat, pigeon) after the occurrence of an event, that likelihood aims to repeat the behavior. It was B.F. Skinner developed the operant conditioning theory of learning. In his classical conditioning, he trained the behavior of Rat by reward and punishment.

Although the concept of reinforcement is quite different in the two situations, the result in both cases is an increase in the likelihood of the desired response. Thus reinforcement helps to strengthen the stimulus-response relationship. Along with it, a reinforcer comes. A reinforcer is an event or stimulus that increases the frequency of response. For example, getting a cold drink from a fridge and turning off the radio are both reinforcers.

Behavior is not always reinforced by biological events such as food, water, and electric shocks. A music teacher does not reinforce his student with food or water but a nod, smile, or good comment is the reinforcement. A reinforcer can become a conditioned reinforcer and acquire the quality as any other reinforcer. For example, tokens, smiles, and nods are similar to a conditioned stimulus (CS). CS’s are associated with biological or a sociological important event and helps to motivate the individual.


Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement is a reward for doing good and positive works. For example, award, reward, tapping on the back, positive smiling to the employee, kind words, and so on that makes the people feel good.

For example, B.F. Skinner provided a food pellet or grain as a positive reinforcer to the rat or pigeon that passed a bar. For human beings, praise from parents and teachers for receiving good grades in psychology tests inspires the student to study even harder for a future test. A child is allowed to play and watch cartoons (reinforcer) after doing his or her homework and clearing the room. Food is a positive reinforcer for animals. Attention, approval, and money are the positive reinforcers of people.

There are three important influencing factors related to positive reinforcement.

  • Timing – There should be few-time gaps between the occurrence of the behavior and the presentation of positive reinforcers. The greater the delay between the response and reinforcer the slower the pace of learning in the organism.
  • Consistency – To shape an individual’s behavior, the reinforcement should be consistent at the beginning of the learning process. Initially, reinforcement should be provided to each response, and this routine can be altered later on.
  • The reinforcer must be reinforcing – Reinforcements such as food or water are not reinforcing to piano students. Their reinforcement is a positive gesture or the word such as excellent, good and so on. We must be sure that the reinforcer being used is really reinforcing.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement is the result of negative works or says behavior that is unfavorable to a particular situation. For example, continuously harassing a late-comer student every time the teacher meets him/ her till the student realizes mistakes and starts coming to class on time.

The word “negative” does not imply that the occurrence of the behavior will decrease in frequency. Both positive and negative reinforcements cause the behavior to reoccur again. For example, playing music to reduce boredom, changing the room so that the roommate will stop complaining that what a lazy person you are, or simply turning off an alarm clock to stop its noise are all examples of negative reinforcements.

In these situations, a negative stimulus is stopped or removed to bring pleasantness, and if the unpleasant situation arises again, the target response that terminated the unpleasant situation is likely to occur. There are two kinds of negative reinforcement.

  • Escape conditioning – In escape conditioning, a behavior is reinforced by the elimination of an adverse state of affairs that already exists, through escaping the disliked situation. Here, an individual escapes from something negative. Therefore, in negative reinforcement, something negative is emoved.
  • Avoidance conditioning – In avoidance conditioning behavior occurs when an organism learns to prevent an expected event from happening. For example, a rat jumps a hurdle to reach a safe chamber when it hears a tone that signals that an electric shock is about to occur.

Primary and Secondary Reinforcement

Primary reinforcement is our physiological needs such as air, food, shelter, sleep, sex, and water. To respond to these needs we do not need to be trained. It is our natural reinforcers. Thus, sometimes primary reinforcer is also called unconditioned reinforcement. Secondary reinforcement also called conditioned reinforcement is the stimulus that occurs in association with the primary reinforcement.

In classical conditioning, they are learned because it involves the association of two stimuli. For example, while training a dog, simply saying “good dog” will not act as a reinforcer for the dog because the dog does not know what those words mean. A good dog must be associated with something the dog understands, like a biscuit or food. After repeatedly pairing these two stimuli, the praise will become a secondary reinforcer and will be effective in reinforcing the dog’s behavior.

In operant conditioning, if a rat in Skinner’s box learns that light signals the coming of food, the rat will work to turn on the light. The light has become the secondary reinforces associated with food. Our lives are filled with secondary reinforcers such as good grades, a pleasant voice, a word of praise, as each of these is linked with a more basic reward.

They are also called conditioned reinforcers. Money is the best example of a conditioned reinforcer, as children use it to buy or exchange for primary reinforcers such as ice cream, candies. Adults use the money to buy food or watch a movie in a hall.

Immediate and Delayed Reinforcement

Immediate and delayed reinforcement is concerned with the time duration between the desired activity and reinforcement. The short time between them is called immediate and the longer time is called the delay in reinforcement.

While conditioning, a hungry rat presses the bar and engages in a sequence of unwanted behavior such as scratching, sniffing, and moving around. To make the rat perform the wanted behavior, the reinforcement should be provided at the exact time and response so that all other desired behaviors do not intervene. In classical conditioning, the dog could establish an association between the food and bell, when it was provided food within 0.2 to 2 seconds.

Likewise in operant conditioning, the rat received the food as soon as it pressed the bar. Humans can respond to reinforces that are greatly delayed. We must learn to plan immediate reinforcers for greater long-term impact to function effectively.

Sometimes, small but immediate reinforcements are more effective and touching than big, delayed rewards. The words excellent, good, work have the potential to enhance student’s effectiveness. Unlike animals, humans respond to reinforcers that are greatly delayed like salary received at the end of the month, the grade at the end of the semester, etc.

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