|If we can train dogs to jump through hoops of|
fire,can't we also train our roommates to do the
dishes? Photo by Keith Moseley at Wikimedia.
The field of psychology provides us with some very useful theoretical tools for shaping the behavior of those around us. Two of them, operant conditioning and classical conditioning, have long been used by animal trainers and science has shown them to be very effective.
Operant conditioning is a learning process in which an animal learns to associate a behavior with a consequence. There are four possible consequences to any behavior:
1) Something good can start or appear
2) Something bad can start or appear
3) Something good can stop or disappear
4) Something bad can stop or disappear
If a consequence immediately and (relatively) consistently follows a specific behavior, the animal will learn to associate the behavior with the consequence and change how frequently it produces the behavior. For example, if you give your dog a treat every time you say “sit” and he sits, he will be more likely to sit whenever you say “sit”. Likewise, if you spray your cat with water every time she jumps on the counter, she will be less likely to jump on the counter when you and the spray bottle are around.
B.F. Skinner, a psychologist at Harvard in the 1960s and 1970s, invented an operant conditioning chamber (also called a Skinner Box), which he used to discover that the predictability with which a consequence is paired with a behavior can influence how quickly an animal learns and how long the training lasts. This is called the schedule of reinforcement. Generally, the more consistently the consequence is paired with the behavior, the faster the animal learns. However, once learned, the consequence can be paired with the behavior very rarely and still maintain the behavior (for example, many slot machine gamblers can play for hours even if they win very rarely).
You can watch a video of Skinner discussing his research here:
For operant conditioning to work, the consequence needs to happen immediately after the behavior. This isn’t always possible. How would a dolphin trainer teach a dolphin to jump through a hoop if she had to give the dolphin a treat right after each jump? In this case, classical conditioning is a helpful tool.
Classical conditioning is a learning process in which an animal learns to associate two stimuli: an unconditioned stimulus that naturally causes the animal to respond and a conditioned stimulus which previously did not elicit a response. Classical conditioning (also called Pavlovian conditioning) is most often associated with Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist and Nobel laureate for his research on digestion. In Pavlov’s famous example of a classical conditioning experiment, he gave a dog a food treat (meat powder) and measured how much the dog salivated. Salivating is a natural response to the food, so in this case, food is an unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov then began to ring a bell immediately before giving the dog the treat. Over time, the dog learns to associate the ringing bell with the treat and will salivate in response to the bell alone. At this point, the ringing bell is the conditioned stimulus.
So how do we put these two theories together to train an animal to show a complex behavior? Generally, simple behaviors are trained by waiting for the behavior to occur and then rewarding it, with something the animal finds naturally rewarding if possible. If that is not possible, a conditioned stimulus can be used by immediately pairing it with the natural reward. This video shows someone training a goldfish to go through a hoop. Notice the timing with which the trainer provides the conditioned reward (the light) and the unconditioned reward (the food).
Once an animal is trained to do a simple behavior, you can build on these behaviors to make them increasingly complex.
Now you can be creative with how you use this knowledge. Train your dog to “read” flash cards. Train your roommate to do the dishes. The possibilities are endless.
Be patient. Training takes time. And remember, the more consistent you are with your rewards, the faster learning and training will happen.
Want to know more? Check these out:
1. Nargeot, R., & Simmers, J. (2010). Neural mechanisms of operant conditioning and learning-induced behavioral plasticity in Aplysia Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 68 (5), 803-816 DOI: 10.1007/s00018-010-0570-9
2. Balsam, P., Sanchez-Castillo, H., Taylor, K., Van Volkinburg, H., & Ward, R. (2009). Timing and anticipation: conceptual and methodological approaches European Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (9), 1749-1755 DOI: 10.1111/j.1460-9568.2009.06967.x