Edward Thorndike (1874-1949), an early twentieth century psychologist, was the first to formulate what he referred to as the Law of Effect. The Law of Effect, simply stated, proposed that any behavior that resulted in pleasant consequences would tend to be repeated, while any behavior that resulted in unpleasant consequences would not. Thorndike later discovered what he termed Spread of Effect. Not only would any behavior that resulted in pleasant consequences be repeated, but also any responses surrounding the reinforced one (Hergenhahn & Olson, 2005, 69).
Building on the earlier work of Thorndike, B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) began to elaborate and extend Thorndike’s ideas on learned behavior. Skinner differentiated between what he termed respondent (or reflexive) behavior, and learned (or operant) behavior. Operant behavior could be characterized by “the observable effects it has on the environment. Operant conditioning, therefore, is learning in which the probability of a response is changed by a chance in its environment (PM, n.d.).”
Reinforcement and Punishment
Two concepts important to an understanding of operant conditioning are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcers and punishment are specific types of consequences. Reinforcement encourages a behavior, while punishment discourages a behavior.
Reinforcement is any consequence of behavior that increases the chances of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcement may be either positive or negative. Positive reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is presented after a response, thus encouraging the response to be repeated. Negative reinforcement occurs when a stimulus is removed after a response, encouraging the response to be repeated. In this context, the terms positive and negative do not refer to good or bad; but rather, to the addition or remove of a stimulus.
Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement and is any consequence that decreases the chances of a behavior being repeated. The...