There are many interesting components to behavioural psychology, and none more so than Skinner's Operant Conditioning (positive reinforcement).  Have you ever wondered how and why some people can sit at an expensive one-arm bandit for hours on end and yet feel compelled to carry on?

In 1938 a behavioural psychologist B.F. Skinner coined the term operant conditioning which roughly means changing behaviour by the use of ‘reinforcement’, to increase the probability of a behaviour being repeated.  When you have the desired response, you reinforce it.   This is broken into several sub-classes, including the well-known term of positive reinforcement.

So you’ll often hear of teachers ‘ignoring the negative behaviour and praising the positive behaviour’.

In class, this means (possibly) that the teacher may strongly acknowledge the children who have followed instructions and are working well.

That’s great James and Catrina, you’ve got off to a good start and you're really working well.”  James and Catrina are more likely to work well in the future.

An example in one of the articles from Skinner: “...... if when you were younger you tried smoking at school, and the consequence was that you got in with the crowd you always wanted to hang out with, you would have been positively reinforced (i.e. rewarded) and would be likely to repeat the behaviour (ie carry on smoking). If, however, the main consequence was that you were caught, caned, suspended from school and your parents became involved you would most certainly have been punished, and you would consequently be much less likely to smoke now.”

So, reinforcement strengthens the behaviour and makes it likely that a person will behave that way again.  Another example in the article says:

Positive reinforcement strengthens a behaviour by providing a consequence which an individual will find rewarding. For example, if your teacher gives you £5 each time you complete your homework (i.e. a reward) you are more likely to continue to complete your homework in the future.”

So what does this have to do with pigeons and slot machines?

pigeonThe science behind positive reinforcement began in Skinner’s laboratory, where he rewarded pigeons with food dropped into a dish after the pigeon had tapped a small disc on the wall a few times.

The food wasn’t given EVERY time the pigeon tapped the disc.  It was a random sequence, yet the pigeon knew that if it tapped often enough the food would eventually fall into the dish.

The behaviour (tapping the disc) was reinforced with the positive reward (food).

This research was used when considering behaviour around gamblers, and how to ensnare them, and in particular the slot machines in Las Vegas.  The behavioural science was translated into the same (but pigeon-less) scenario, where people will - unbelievably - spend many hours feeding their hard earned dollars into the machine in the certain knowledge that the winning payout would eventually fall into the tray.

So that's a nutshell explanation of a huge topic.

What could you do to reinforce the behaviour you'd like to see, whether you're a parent, a teacher, or in fact in any section of your life?