© 2018 by Janelle E. Letzen, PhD

 
Operant Conditioning
What is a operant conditioning?
  • Link to post on Instagram

For many of us, posting content on social media is a way to share information and experiences. Let's be honest, it also provides opportunities for likes, comments, and new followers that send a little ping of dopamine through our mesocorticolimbic system with each platform notification. What's one reason that we remain engaged in social media? Operant conditioning! It's a type of learning that happens based on outcomes of behavior. You can think about it as "reward learning."

Types of Operant Conditioning

There are three main outcome types: "reinforcers" increase behavior, "punishers" decrease behavior, and "neutral operants" don't really change behavior. We can divide reinforcers/punishers based on presentation: "positive" means the stimulus is GIVEN as a result of the behavior, and "negative" means it is REMOVED as a result of the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

Let's revisit our social media example. For many, getting likes, positive comments, etc. will lead to an increase or continuation in posting behavior. The person experienced positive reinforcement from GAINING something desired, so the behavior CONTINUES.

Positive Punishment

If, instead, that person got many mean comments that they found aversive, it might decrease their likelihood of posting. In this case, the person experienced positive punishment from GAINING something undesired, leading to a DECREASE in posting behavior.

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Negative Punishment

There also might be a decrease in posting behavior if the person loses something desired. In the case of social media, if a person is posting, but losing followers (i.e., something she/he desired), the person will likely post less frequently. In this case, the person experienced negative punishment LOSING something desired, resulting in a DECREASE in behavior.
 

Negative Reinforcement

Let's say that the person is feeling pretty bored, and posting on social media acts as a time-occupying activity. So by investing time in posting, time spent feeling bored is reduced. In this case, the person has negative reinforcement from LOSING something undesired (i.e., boredom), resulting in an INCREASE in posting behavior.

Other Considerations

Other factors drive our behavior too, so this conditioning is just one piece of the story. Operant conditioning also isn't always straight forward. One reason is that some people find "good" and "bad" social attention reinforcing. Think about a kid throwing a tantrum in a supermarket. A parent's instinct might be to yell as a form of positive punishment, hoping the tantrum will stop. If what this kid wanted was attention - and the parent was distracted by nutrition labels - the yelling just acts as a desired outcome. The kid then learns that tantrums = desired outcome of social attention when otherwise not getting attention. The same applies to internet trolls. 

For children with really unruly behavior, effective treatments (e.g., Parent-Child Interaction Therapy) can help parents apply these principles in responding to children's (un)desired behaviors. However, no evidence-based treatments exist for internet trolls yet.