Operant Learning.

Considering what you have learnt about Operant Learning, discuss how this information has now helped you to understand either your own behaviour, or the behaviour of someone in your immediate circle.

The best example to help my understanding of these different types of learning techniques is the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon & Penny scene. This, more than any theoretical understanding, has helped articulate in real world application what operant learning is – how it looks, how it feels, how it is put into practice. Operant conditioning is reinforcement given to a desirable behaviour to encourage that behaviour happening again. It can also be used to modify or slightly alter an existing behaviour, or to stop an undesirable behaviour occurring altogether. The Big Bang Theory example alludes to the idea that if the conditioning can happen subconsciously, without obvious reinforcement, it has a better, more intrinsic, chance of being effective.

I reflect on the times in my life when this may have happened to me without my immediate knowledge. Perhaps when I was very young, I was rewarded by using bathroom breaks correctly. That type of learning is an obvious necessity to become part of functioning society (who wants to be associated with an adult who still pees their pants?). And I think that is quite a point to make. A lot of what we learn and adapt to is based on the societal standards we have created for ourselves – be it learning to go to the bathroom, or how to conduct ourselves in a conversation.

By being the curious creatures that we are, we cannot help to see the world and want to make sense of it. Perhaps by our own understanding of the happenings around us, we are interpreting our own reinforcement to actions. Imagine if every time you went up a lift and held your breath, the lift worked just fine. Imagine if one day you just didn’t do this because you were talking to someone, and the lift shuddered, or stopped completely and you were stuck. Perhaps you would associate the holding of breath to the lift working ok, and have been conditioned to continue that behaviour.

What if every time you cooked dinner for you parents, they gave you chocolate for dessert. You really love chocolate, but still live at home without a job so you can’t go and get your own. You’d probably cook dinner more, yes? By the time you leave home, you’ll be so used to cooking dinner that you’d be great at it! You might even want to become a chef (if the prize was an endless supply of Cadbury’s).

Closer to home, however, operant conditioning becomes a very precarious tool. Do I now hold this power over people close to me who don’t understand the mental technology I am implementing? The power to subtly reinforce behaviours from my roommate that I like. When she takes the rubbish out, I offer her a cigarette. I take extra care to ensure she notices me emptying the rubbish, then I will initiate a smoke break. This modelling/imitation is working well so far. Our bins are nearly always clear. (then again, the smoking habit is a tougher nut to crack – working on it!).

I start to look outside of my immediate circle. What about the people I work with, what about the customers I talk to. Why do they have certain habits, why do they do things a certain way. Is our office manager employing such tactics to manipulate his staff to his own, or the companies, desired attributes? Is it even a bad thing? Our company recently employed a Future Recruiter – a young school graduate – to develop their career in recruitment. Career development now seems to be a socially acceptable term for Operant Conditioning. “We will reward you for adapting your behaviour for our desired results”. We train our Future Recruiters how to interact with clients, what the best tactics are to get the result you want, how to schedule your daily calendar to be the most productive. All the while, praising your adapted behaviours highly. Modifying your initial instincts to something more preferred.

What behaviours have I since adapted or changed because of operant learning? How did I end up being the person I am today? Who did this to me, who made me like this?! I know for certain that I do not act the same as my 15 year old self would. I have a different understanding of how to behave to garner the reaction I desire, be it in personally life (on a night out) or in work life (on a visit with a new client) or in my daily wind-down (at home with my roommate and closer friends). The reasons I act the way I do in any given situation is a result of previous actions and consequences I have learnt from them. Thus moulding my own behaviour with my own learning and interpretation of reinforcement. I guess the methods of conditioning are so subtle that over a lifetime, they are difficult to pinpoint. It plays more to the idea of Nurture more so than Nature shaping the people we become. If I had grown in isolation, like a lone tree in a desert, I would have grown very differently to a tree in a forest grove.