Select one of the two options for this week.
- Select a program that you think is effective for many people. You might consider Weight Watchers, savings plans, or “club” membership perks, noting ideas as they connect with Skinner’s belief system. How are people rewarded? Contrast the ways that they may not work and what you and the general public might need to consider.
John Watson (1913) set the stage for this aspect of learning when he wrote about Psychology in his letter to the discipline, Psychology as a Behaviourist Sees It. He argued that there was too much “mentalism” in psychology. He believed psychologists needed to research what could be seen and studied, not states of mind, consciousness, or introspection. His ideas resonated with many of his colleagues who sought to create scientific rigor. This idea caught hold as psychologists began to investigate how these ideals might be realized. Pavlov had already conducted experiments that provided evidence that a stimulus could be conditioned in such a way as to create a specific physiological response. In his case, he saw dogs salivating when they heard a bell that had called graduate students to come feed them. We discuss this sometimes as a way to indicate learning but philosophically, even though your stomach might growl anticipating lunch time we do not view this as a viable or ethical way to assist in the learning process. You can classically condition eye blinks, salivating, muscle twitches, and heart beats but those connections are not used in schooling. You might be able to think of some strategic marketing techniques that employ these techniques as Watson quit academia and went to work for a marketing firm in Chicago and revolutionized the process of selling products and ideas to the public.
Instead, with learning and schooling another behaviourist has been more influential. Burrhus Fredric Skinner found Pavlov’s work fascinating and he agreed with Watson’s manifesto. So, he began his experiments to outline how behaviours might be shaped, supported, or suppressed in other ways. His ideas came to be known as operant conditioning. Skinner found that he could increase or strengthen behaviours by rewarding (positive reinforcement) or taking away a negative stimulus (negative reinforcement). He also discovered that he could stop or suppress behaviours by giving punishments (Type 1 or presentation punishment) or removing positive stimuli (Type 2 or removal punishment).
Often our learning is heavily influenced by rewards and punishments, but our perception matters. What is punishing for one may mean the opposite to another. Teachers must be very wary of one-size-fits all reward schemes in classrooms. Having a student punished with a loss of recess may have poor effect. If the struggling student has not made friends or does not enjoy the rough play on the playground they may like staying in from recess. Similarly, there are other reasons why rewards or punishments may not work. Overall, though, as humans we like to do activities that make us feel good and we avoid the ones that have bad consequences.