In the previous article we touched upon classical conditioning, the idea that learning could occur where a neutral stimulus could be associated with an internal bodily state. In 1898, a researcher from Columbia University, Edward Thorndike, began his own experiments on animal behavior. Thorndike created puzzle boxes to test learning in cats. Essentially, a hungry cat would be put in a box with a latch that the cat could manipulate to escape. He found that cats initially took a long time to escape, undoing the latch by chance, however, in subsequent trials they were much faster, indicating that they learned from previous trials (Thorndike, 1927).
Thorndike came up with three conclusions based on his experiments. One, the more times a learner encounters associations, the stronger the learner associates the stimulus with the response. Two, the learner’s pre-existing experiences and state of mind have an impact on the speed at which they develop an understanding of the association (a hungry cat is more eager to learn than a fed one). Three, a response that results in a positive conclusion is more likely to be repeated than one that results in a negative conclusion (Brock, 2020; Catania, 1999).
Building off of Thorndike’s discoveries, B.F. Skinner developed a similar experiment. He created a “Skinner Box,” an enclosure for rats and pigeons, with an apparatus inside that allowed the animal to receive a food reward whenever it did the desired action (such as pressing a lever or turning a key). Once the animal’s received their treat, they would continually do the action to receive more (Hammond et al., 2001; Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). Based on the results of these experiments, Skinner elucidated a new form of learning, operant conditioning, where the consequence of a behavior reinforces or discourages the animal from doing an action (Goldman, 2012).
While these concepts may sound like they only exist in sterile lab environments, we see them play out constantly in human behavior. When parents punish or reward their children based on behavior, teachers give good grades to students who learn the material, and employers reward productive workers with financial bonuses, are all perfect examples of the utilization of operant conditioning!