Post No.: 0189
People (and other animals) can learn fast through the perception or recognition of ‘cause and effect’ i.e. if A co-occurred with or occurred just before B, then it is usually assumed that A caused B. There may not always be a true causal relationship between these two correlating events but a perception of association between these two events will be learnt – and it’s this that matters to the intuitive brain.
This effect can be used to your advantage though by quickly and consistently rewarding desirable action A with a pleasant reward B, or punishing undesirable action C with an unpleasant punishment D. The key is consistent messages and consequences, plus the time delay between an action and a consequence must be quick so that the two events become associated with each other. It helps to have an assertive voice when delivering commands and reprimands too. And any rewards or punishments must ideally be proportionate too.
Classical conditioning is when an unconditioned stimulus innately produces an unconditioned response without need for previous learning (e.g. the thought of food and salivating). Now if another object/event is introduced that becomes associated with that stimulus and response, it’ll create a conditioned response or reflex (e.g. if the sound of a bell is played every time some food is presented, the sound of the bell will itself start to trigger salivation even when no food is presented. One of the first experiments where this was discovered involved dogs – woof!) The ability or instinct to associate earlier events with later predicted events is critical to an animal’s survival (e.g. a car horn and danger, red fruits tasting sweeter than green fruits, smoke and fire, dark clouds and rain).
Operant conditioning is similar but with non-innate stimuli and responses i.e. there is a need for previous learning (e.g. scoring goals and receiving adoration for it, or pecking at a target and getting rewarded with seeds for doing so. One of the first experiments where this was discovered involved birds). All else being equal, behaviours that get rewarded will get performed more frequently, and behaviours that get punished will get performed less frequently. Such behaviours become associated with their outcomes. Once-random behaviours can then become goal-directed for the rewards.
So classical conditioning pairs or associates two stimuli together, where no voluntary behaviour is involved because the association is created by exploiting an involuntary response. And operant conditioning pairs a behaviour and a response together, where a voluntary behaviour is changed.
Conditioning could be seen as a form of controlling the minds and modifying the behaviours of others – but this strategy is naturally and routinely used by everyone, from parents to bosses, governments and businesses (e.g. fighting with one’s sibling and getting grounded, doing work and getting paid, committing larceny and going to jail, referring a service to a friend and receiving a discount). Shaping behaviours and having our own behaviours shaped via conditioning is just a fact of life in an interactive world.
‘Positive reinforcement’ is about positively reinforcing a desired behaviour (e.g. giving praise for good behaviour to encourage more of that behaviour). ‘Negative reinforcement’ is about removing a negative consequence to encourage a desired behaviour (e.g. removing chores for good behaviour to encourage more of that behaviour). ‘Positive punishment’ is about positively punishing an undesired behaviour (e.g. giving a verbal scold for bad behaviour to discourage that behaviour). ‘Negative punishment’ is about removing a positive consequence to discourage an undesired behaviour (e.g. removing privileges for bad behaviour to discourage that behaviour). It’s vital to understand that in science, ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ don’t mean ‘good’ or ‘bad’ but indicate the direction of effects and the ‘addition’ or ‘subtraction’ of something. And it can be the case that one person’s ‘reward’ is another person’s ‘punishment’ (e.g. a child might not like going to the cinema) so this is something to bear in mind.
Extinction is about the decrease in frequency, or the cessation of a behaviour, by continuous non-reinforcement e.g. ignoring an undesired behaviour or removing any rewards associated with it, such as minimising any whining or crying by a child at night time (that you know is only for trying to get your attention) by never responding to it. This also means that taking a child’s good behaviours for granted is a great way to make those good behaviours extinct! Too many of us pay too much attention towards (i.e. reward) people who do bad things, and pay too little attention towards (i.e. punish) people who do good things, and this needs to change otherwise we’ll get what we deserve in society.
In associative learning, which is what conditioning is about – when we feel pleasure right after doing something, we want to do that something again and again. This process can be hijacked though e.g. addictive drugs or gambling, which can make us seek that ‘hit’ of immediate and short-term pleasure again and again at the expense of an unhealthy life, debts or failing to carry out other responsibilities/important duties in one’s day. So not all things that feel naturally pleasurable are good for us or for society.
Different rewards/punishments work for different behaviours, and it matters also how those rewards/punishments are dished out (e.g. with a minimal delay from the desired/undesired behaviour is best, or at least make it crystal clear to a child which reward/punishment is associated with which desired/undesired behaviour). Children aren’t stupid too, and are likely to learn more than what their parents intend to teach (e.g. spanking is likely to make some behaviours less frequent in the short-term, but the child will also come to associate the bad consequence not only with the spanking but also with the person dealing it, and even possibly the type of person doing it e.g. men with bald heads). So we can shape their behaviours with punishments in the short-term but we risk instilling fear, depression and/or anxiety in them in the long-term. And you could also whip or beat someone to do work as a slave but they likely won’t carry on doing that work if/when you’re no longer there to whip or beat them, as it were (e.g. once a child reaches the time when he/she can leave the home). This is why rewarding desired behaviours should be the primary strategy. Woof!
Punishments can deter, but for children in particular, parents are better off leaning more towards the side of rewarding desired behaviours to achieve long-term desired results. There is growing evidence showing that punishment, or even ignoring undesired behaviours all the time, is not productive – this may achieve temporary results, but overall, one must use far more positive encouragements and reward desired behaviours. (So there should really be less moaning on social media and more praising when people, companies and governments do things right, for instance!) One must also learn to let grievances quickly go, to forgive, make up as soon as possible and be friends or at least cordial again, otherwise quarrelling parties could enter a downward spiral of reciprocal undesired behaviours and unpleasant consequences and results.
Towards a child who behaves in an undesirable manner, one must afterwards calmly and gently explain what went wrong and explain clearly what is to be expected in the future. And we must never punish a child for doing something we never explained was wrong in the first place i.e. people aren’t mind readers and retroactive rules are unfair. And don’t nag on and on…
…Erm and so on that note, I’ll stop there for now and write some more about the subject another time!
Woof. If you’d like to share your thoughts on what sorts of rewards or punishments you find effective, particularly in the way they’re dealt, from either the perspective of a parent or child, then please use the Twitter comment button below.