Much of the human learning could be explained with the help of operant conditioning method. For example, parents and other authorities attempt to discourage aggressive behaviours by punishing them and reward for good behaviours. The role of reinforcement is very crucial in operant conditioning. It can be positive or negative.

Positive Reinforcement

Reinforcement is any operation or action that increases the rate of response. In Skinner’s experiment the rat responded by pressing the lever and obtained food. This is called positive reinforcement. So, a positive reinforcement or reward (e.g., food, sexual pleasure, etc.) is the operation that increases the strength of a specific behaviour. Positive reinforcement is any stimulus that strengthens a response that precedes it (e.g., lever pressing is reinforced by food).

Negative Reinforcement

Another quite different way of increasing the rate of response is through negative reinforcement. Suppose that in the Skinner Box the rat receives electric shock to the feet every second. When the rat presses the lever, the shock is removed for 10 secs. This increases the rate of response. This procedure is called negative reinforcement which involves application of an aversive stimulus (e.g. heat, electric shock, scudding etc.).

The word “negative” refers to the nature of the reinforcer (aversive stimulus). It is a “reinforcement” because it increases the rate of response. This procedure is called “escape” learning because the rat can escape the shock if it presses the lever.

Another kind of negative reinforcement can result in conditioning called “avoidance” learning where the rat can avoid the shock by pressing the lever. In escape or avoidance learning the reinforcer is negative and the organism learns to escape or avoid its presence.

Schedules of Reinforcement

How do we reinforce the correct responses? It could be by using continuous or partial reinforcement. In the case of continuous reinforcement, every correct response is reinforced.

For example, when the rat presses the lever every time it gets a food pellet (reinforcement). Alternatively, the responses are reinforced partially or intermittently (some times only). The continuous reinforcement is useful for establishing or strengthening new behaviours. The partial reinforcement, on the other hand, is more powerful in maintaining the acquired behaviours.

Observational Learning: Modelling

Observational learning is the third major way we learn. Acquiring new skills by observing the behaviour of others is very common. It is a part of everyday life. Observational learning depends on the existence of appropriate model in one’s environment. That is, the child picks up behaviour while the appropriate model is performing an activity.

For example, young people learn aggression through watching the actions of others (models). Television programmes and movies provide much of the learning to the young people. When children watch violence on TV they tend to learn such behaviours. We learn various social roles through observational learning.

However, observational learning is a complex process, far more complex than mere imitation. Children acquire information and learn skills through observational learning but do not put it into immediate use. People, particularly youngsters, can often be influenced in positive ways when they have appropriate role models.