Instrumental Conditioning

Instrumental conditioning involves learning the association between a response and its consequences (what happens immediately after that response). E. L. Thorndike studied this process, often called "trial and error" learning, at the end of the 19th century. (As B. F. Skinner later pointed out, "trial and success" learning is a more accurate description.) Based on his studies of chicks and cats, he proposed the Law of Effect. This law states that the strength of a response increases when a " satisfier" promptly follows it. A satisfier is something an animal (or person) consistentlyapproaches and does nothing to avoid.

B. F. Skinner was the most forceful and influential exponent of instrumental conditioning and its importance in everyday behavior. He and his associates and followers applied the concepts of instrumental conditioning to problems ranging from animal training to education, treatment of psychological problems, behavioral management of mentally retarded people, and industrial management. Skinner used the term operant conditioning, which is slightly different from instrumental conditioning, but the difference can be ignored.

Unlike Pavlovian conditioning, instrumental conditioning requires an individual to emit (made) the response to be conditioned before it can be conditioned. Because of this feature, instrumental learning looks like what people call voluntary behavior. The strength or probability of a response can be changed by its consequences only after the response occurs. For example, a hungry pigeon must peck at the target, before it gets food to reinforce (make stronger) that pecking response. Although the pigeon's behavior looks very much like that produced by autoshaping described in Exercises E10_20a and b, it is based on a different procedure. Figure 1 shows the sequence of events on the first reinforced of instrumental conditioning and Pavlovian conditioning by autoshaping.

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(E10_20a) E11_17h, E12_05j, E11_05d