Now let us review another type of behavioral learning called "operant conditioning." These principles are a bit more familiar since we encounter them in our daily lives.
B.F. Skinner was one of the most prominent psychologists of the last century and is credited with the discovery of operant conditioning. Skinner attended Harvard University and his goal was to study animal behavior in a scientific manner. He conducted many famous experiments during his lifetime that demonstrated behavior was influenced not only by what occurred before it (as in classical conditioning), but also by what occurred afterward. Skinner believed that human beings (and animals) learn a behavior through a system of rewards and punishments that are part of the person's immediate environment. When psychologists use the word "environment," they are referring to all the external events that are going on around a person. Thus, my boss smiling at me is an external event and part of my environment, while my thoughts and ideas about my boss smiling at me are internal events, and are not considered part of my environment. It wasn't until much later that these internal events, these cognitions, were recognized as important factors that also influenced behavior, which subsequently resulted in the inclusion of the "cognitive" portion of the cognitive-behavioral theory.
Skinner's focus on behavior and the environment was quite unique at the time. Prior to Skinner's work, the newly emerging field of psychology was heavily influenced by Freudian theory which held that psychopathology was a function of "unconscious processes," "intra-psychic conflicts," and childhood fantasies. Because these Freudian concepts cannot be observed nor measured, they were not suitable for scientific study. Skinner, and many other behaviorists of his era, believed that in order for psychology to be accepted as a natural science, psychologists must concern themselves with the study of things that can be measured. Thus, the focus shifted to studying observable and measurable events; namely, behavior and the environment itself.
Skinner proposed, and later demonstrated, that by manipulating the rewards and punishments in the environment, a behavior can be learned (and unlearned). In behavioral terms, a reinforcement (reward) refers to anything that causes a behavior to increase, while a punishment is something that causes a behavior to decrease. If the environment rewards a behavior, that behavior is reinforced and this increases the likelihood that a person will repeat the same behavior in the future. Conversely, if the environment punishes a particular behavior, this decreases the likelihood the behavior will be repeated. To illustrate, let's imagine you smile every time you pass by your boss at work, and your boss responds by smiling back at you, and wishing you a warm and hearty, "Hello!" This interaction leads to pleasant emotions and these pleasant emotions serve as an environmental reward. Since the response from your boss was rewarding by producing pleasant emotions, it was positively reinforcing. Therefore, it is likely that you will continue to smile at her each morning because smiling was reinforced by your environment.
Skinner's work resulted in many practical applications: from teaching effective parenting skills, to improving employee productivity and satisfaction in the workplace. Because of Skinner and other influential researchers of his era, today's cognitive-behavioral psychologists have systematic methods available to help people change problematic behaviors. This is accomplished by evaluating and altering the environmental influences that reward or punish a person's behavior.
Let's use an example to illustrate these concepts. Suppose a family wants their child's temper tantrums to stop. If a behavioral psychologist was consulted to assist this family, the first step in the therapeutic process would be to observe the child and his family in their natural environment, and to perform a behavioral evaluation. The purpose of the behavioral evaluation is to identify, and to understand, the environmental factors that may be influencing (reinforcing) the tantrum. The evaluation will record when, where, and with whom, the tantrum occurred, and notes the circumstances in which the tantrum occurred. These are considered the antecedents to the tantrum (What happens before the tantrum occurs?). For example, do the tantrums occur more frequently in the evenings, when the mother is busy cooking dinner, and unable to give the child her undivided attention? The behavioral evaluation will also record of the consequences of the tantrum to identify the environmental factors that may be reinforcing the tantrum (What happens after the tantrum?). When the child begins to cry, does the mother stop her dinner preparation, and give the child her attention, thereby inadvertently rewarding the tantrum? After identifying all of these important environmental variables, the psychologist would coach the parents to alter the environment so as not to reward the tantrum. This might involve asking the family to simply ignore the tantrum whenever it occurs, while striving to provide the child attention for positive behavior during meal preparation, perhaps finding a way to include the child in the meal preparation in some small way. When the tantrum is no longer reinforced by the mother's attention, the behavior will eventually become extinct (i.e., gradually fade away) due to the lack of environmental reward.