Operant Conditioning

Although classical conditioning is relevant to current ecological issues, many Skinnerian analyses of operant principles have been applied directly (e.g., Nevin, 1985; Skinner, 1985, 1991). In fact, Skinner was one of the first psychologists to repeatedly relate the issues of resource depletion, pollution, and overpopulation to human survival. His best-selling novel Walden Two (1948) explored the question of utopia from a behavioral perspective, and is a thoughtful and provocative look at how behavioral principles can be used to design a healthier and more effective society. A more serious discussion of the behavioral approach to human problems appeared in his later book Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). In both works, he examined the problem of designing a sustainable culture, proposing that impending ecological disasters stem from inappropriate human behavior. He argued that we must redesign culture to shape more appropriate behavior; that is, we need a technology of behavior focusing on maintaining the health of the environment in which behavior occurs.

Before we describe its applications, let us review the terminology and basic components of Skinner's theory. Operant conditioning procedures build on Thorndike's (1898, as cited in Skinner, 1953) Law of Effect, which stated that behavior followed by a favorable consequence would be "stamped in" (positive reinforcement, in Skinner's terminology), whereas behavior followed by an unfavorable consequence would be "stamped out" (punishment). Reinforcement refers literally to strengthening, or increasing the likelihood of behavior, while punishment decreases the probability of the particular behavior. Skinner elaborated by noting that removing a stimulus can also reduce a behavior (termed negative punishment; e.g., removing privileges, charging a fine), and removing some stimuli negatively reinforces or increases the associated behavior (e.g., curing a headache negatively reinforces taking aspirin). The term "negative" refers to removal of the stimulus; there is a negative (inverse) association between the behavior and stimulus (see Table 4.1). Moreover, Skinner determined that it is more effective to control behavior through positive reinforce-

"Oh, not bad. The light comes on, I press the bar, they "write me a check. How about you?"

© The New Yorker Collection 1993 Tom Cheney from cartoonbank.com. All rights reserved.

ment than by punishment because punishment often produces undesirable behavioral side effects, such as aggression.

Some examples might be helpful here. The grocery store where Sue shops offers 5 cents for every bag she brings with her to carry groceries. This rebate represents positive reinforcement, as the nickel reinforces the behavior of bringing her own bags. In addition, Oregon and several other states have a "bottle bill," where the purchase price of products in glass bottles and aluminum cans includes a 5-cent deposit, refundable upon return of the bottles and cans. If Sue fails to return a bottle, she loses a nickel. This is negative punishment, as she is missing out on a refund, so we might say that laziness is punished. On the other hand, if Sue returns the bottles and gets a refund, the refund

TABLE 4.1

Reinforcement and Punishment: Four Types of Operant Relationships

Effect on Behavior

Increases Behavior

Decreases Behavior

Stimulus Added Positive Reinforcement

(Bring grocery bag, get 5$) Stimulus Taken Negative Reinforcement

Away (Conserve, avoid getting yelled at and feeling guilty)

(Positive) Punishment

(Waste water, get yelled at) Negative Punishment (Litter, pay fine)

serves as a positive reinforcer. Both explanations are valid in this case; the key point is which behavior is the focus of the analysis (i.e., laziness or returning the bottles).

A similar examination can be brought to bear on Sue's behavior concerning water use. She grew up hearing the phrase, "waste not, want not" and was taught to use water sparingly while brushing her teeth or washing dishes. As an adult, Sue lived for several years in a home with a well (rather than city water) and took conservation even more seriously out of fear the well would run dry—an outcome that would punish wasteful behavior. For example, she and her partner adopted the phrase "if it's yellow, let it mellow; if it's brown, flush it down" for toilet flushing conservation. More recently, it occurred to her that the water with which most toilets are flushed is cleaner than the water many people have to drink. More than 1 billion people (or one out of every six people on this planet) do not have safe drinking water, and about half of all people in the world do not have sufficient water for basic sanitation and hygiene (Gardner, 2002). For all of these reasons, Sue continues to be very conscientious about water use, and hates to see waste (e.g., leaky faucets; people's wasteful behaviors). From her perspective, waste has been punished (e.g., by her mother yelling at Sue when she was a child), and avoiding waste is negatively reinforced (avoiding punishers like being yelled at, or running out of a scarce resource).

Feelings are important in maintaining many behaviors shaped by operant conditioning. This statement may come as a surprise to readers who think that behaviorists discount feelings and other internal events. That is a common misconception of behaviorism. Rather, behaviorists argue that internal events like feelings cannot cause behavior; the causes of behavior lie in the external environment. Emotions and cognitions are simply other behaviors that also result from environmental events. Thus, when Sue was punished for wasting water, her behavior changed and she also experienced certain emotions, such as shame. Feeling ashamed became associated with waste, and now when Sue has been or is tempted to be wasteful, that same feeling occurs. Avoiding shame or guilt continues to negatively reinforce her conservation behaviors.

Not only does behavior change because of its relation to consequences, but the schedule of reinforcement makes a difference in the strength and durability (persistence) of the behavior. We should note that schedule of reinforcement really means "schedule of consequences," as it refers to both reinforcement and punishment and includes positive and negative (inverse) relationships with the behavior. Behavior tends to change most quickly when the consequences are consistently administered (a continuous reinforcement schedule). How-

FIG. 4.1. Variable reinforcement schedules produce behavior that is more resistant to extinction than continuous reinforcement schedules.

ever, if the reinforcement schedule is intermittent rather than continuous, some behaviors will last longer when the reinforcers are withdrawn (in operant terminology, behavior will extinguish more slowly; see Fig. 4.1). For example, the Coast Guard inspects industrial wastes from processing plants on inland waterways on a random schedule (Cone & Hayes, 1980). Companies do not know when the inspection will take place, just as we do not know when a patrol car will be checking our speed as we drive. These random schedules are powerful forms of behavioral control. The industrial chemical company and highways where we regularly drive may not be patrolled for months, but because the schedule is intermittent, our transgressions are controlled for a longer time than if we had noticed the continuous presence of, and then the sudden disappearance of, the patrol boat or car.

There are several kinds of intermittent reinforcement schedules and they produce different behavioral results. For example, most people recycle their bottles on a variable ratio schedule, a schedule in which the number of responses varies for each reinforcer. When Deborah brings a box of bottles to the recycling center and gets the rebates for her effort, many separate behaviors of rinsing and saving bottles have accumulated to result in the monetary reinforcement. Sometimes she brings in 40 bottles, sometimes 42, sometimes 48, depending on the size of the bottles and the degree to which the box is overflowing (often related to the amount of entertaining she has done, and for how long she has put off the task). If Deborah recycled bottles every Saturday, her behavior would be on a fixed interval schedule. Conservation of electricity is controlled by a kind of fixed interval schedule. Once a month (a fixed time interval) you receive a bill for the amount of energy you have used, no matter how many times you have turned off the light switches. Fixed schedules tend to produce slow rates of responding right after the reinforcer, and then higher rates as the next reinforcement opportunity approaches. For example, you probably do not study the textbook immediately after taking a test in a course. Biweekly classroom tests are an example of fixed interval reinforcement schedule; they produce lots of studying just before the event, and not very much directly afterward. On the other hand, variable interval and variable ratio schedules produce steady and high rates of responding.

Behaviors developed under optimal reinforcement schedules can become habitual and thus very durable. An example from Deborah's experience illustrates the power of both continuous and variable schedules. A few years ago she lived in Denmark for 7 months, a country in which people usually brought their own cloth shopping bags to the grocery store because the plastic bags at the counter cost almost $1.00 a piece. It was easy for her behavior to change in Denmark because the reinforcement for doing so (saving $1.00) was continuous, as well as sizable. When Deborah returned to her home in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, shopping bags were free, but deforestation was also visible. Not only were stories about forest issues continually in the news, but driving across the state she was shocked to see huge patches of clearcuts in what had been a rich forest cover when she left. Even though there were no monetary reinforcers for bringing her own bag, this seemed a more appropriate behavior because so much of our forest is lost to unnecessary paper use. In fact, through a community volunteer group, Deborah helped set up a cloth bag project, making cloth shopping bags available in supermarkets, and trying to persuade friends to use them instead of the paper and plastic bags given at the counter (she became known as "the bag lady"!).

Here's where the variable reinforcement schedule came in. After having become known to friends as a person committed to cloth grocery bags, it was embarrassing to meet one of them in a supermarket without having her cloth bags. Deborah never knew when she would see one of her friends, but the chance of meeting one helped maintain the habit of bringing a bag every time she entered the store, or returning to the car to get one if initially she forgot it. After a while, bringing the bag became automatic, and Deborah no longer thinks about whether or not she will meet a friend. The intermittent schedule helped keep the rate of responding so high for such a long time that the behavior became habitual, and will be very resistant to extinction. Unfortunately for others, no strong continuous rate of reward is available to shape the behavior in the first place, so intermittent schedules are not very useful. Grocers still give free paper and plastic bags, and even the rebate once offered for customers' bags has been dropped in many stores. Consequently, use of cloth bags has not been established in the general public. Even though many people bought the bags, they find it difficult to remember to use them. A behaviorist would say that effective reinforcement schedules are not yet available for changing this behavior.

Like other animals, humans discriminate between stimuli by learning to respond only to stimuli that signal when reinforcement will follow, and not to respond when behavior will not be reinforced. For example, humans discriminate between bottles that are marked for rebate (soda and beer bottles stating "5<2 deposit redemption value") and those that are not (juice or wine bottles). The discrimination occurs because bringing in the former will be reinforced, while bringing in the latter will not and may even be punished as the clerk laughs at us.

Thus, behavior is controlled by discriminative stimuli, denoted as SDs. Our environment is filled with SDs, including signals, prompts, and models, which we will discuss more fully later. For now, however, the point is that behavior is embedded in two different kinds of stimuli, those that cue the behavior, called SDs, and those that follow the behavior, called SEs, for reinforcing stimuli. Because of the operation of discriminative stimuli and the consequences of our behavior, Skinner said that behavior is under stimulus control. Conceptually then, behaviorists look at behavior as a series of responses (R), each with its own discriminative and reinforcing stimuli. The units of behavior may be indicated by

where a discriminative stimulus (SD) sets the context in which a particular behavior (R) will be reinforced or punished.

Before we examine some of the specific ways in which behaviorists are developing a technology of environmentally appropriate human behaviors, let us raise a question about how a behaviorist might explain our environmental mess in the first place. How can our ecological troubles be due to inappropriate behavior, if actions are simply products of stimulus control at work in the environment? In other words, behaviorists argue that our behavior is a result of the environment, not of some inner events like conflicts or values. In that case, behavior cannot be right or wrong because it simply reflects what is occurring in the situation in which we behave (as Skinner once said, "The organism is always right"). If that is true, then how can it be so maladaptive?

Behaviorists would argue that maladaptive behaviors result when short-term consequences differ from long-term consequences. Our behavior is under the control of short-term reinforcers, even if it brings delayed aversive consequences. Driving may ultimately be bad for our health (as we get less exercise) and for the planet (as we contribute to pollution and global warming), but the immediate reinforcement is so powerful (getting to where we need to go quickly and conveniently) that we do it anyway. In other words, we are caught in a contingency trap (W. M. Baum, 1994). Many "bad" habits, including environmentally destructive behaviors, are very difficult to change because breaking habitual behavior usually involves a short-term cost. Sometimes, we must deliberately change the short-term consequences to bring them in line with long-term outcomes. For example, Sue refuses to purchase a parking permit at Willamette University where she works so she is not tempted to drive. If Sue succumbs to the short-term convenience of driving, her behavior will result in immediate punishment (a parking ticket). She has intentionally altered the contingencies to control her behavior so it is more in line with her long-term concerns about global warming and pollution.

Another way to look at our inappropriate behavior is to consider the effects of culture. Skinner (1990) argued that culture changes faster than adaptive behavior. Culture, a complex conglomeration of reinforcement schedules, changes faster than behavior because behavior is often slow to extinguish; that is, it outlasts changes in environmental contingencies. For centuries, reproductive behavior was highly rewarded by societies with small populations. Now, however, reproductive behavior is producing dangerous overpopulation. In most cultures, the threat of material scarcity encouraged families to accumulate extra wealth; now overconsumption pollutes and depletes resources. For several centuries, Americans were reinforced for settling wilderness and "conquering nature"; as of 2003, there is very little wilderness left. Eventually, behavior that is not reinforced will extinguish, and the cul ture will discontinue the reinforcers (e.g., parents of large families may not enjoy as much social support as they once did). But the natural evolution of behavior can take decades, if not lifetimes.

For these reasons, behaviorists believe that humans can and should facilitate behavior change by redesigning the environments in which environmentally relevant behaviors take place. The natural process of behavioral adaptation will be too slow. We can appreciate this point by remembering the exponential growth of our environmental difficulties; we simply may not have time to wait for the slower form of behavioral evolution to take place. The same point can be made about the consequences of economic behavior. As we will discuss later in this chapter, market forces may be too slow to change our purchasing behavior, and we may require additional price regulations for expedient adjustment.

How then can we use the principles of behavioral psychology to change our behavior? Obviously, we must change features of the environment in which our behavior takes place. In the words of Geller (1992a), we must change behavior through "modification or removal of contingencies currently reinforcing behaviors detrimental to the environment" and establish "new response-consequence contingencies to motivate the occurrence of behaviors beneficial to the environment" (pp. 814—815). This approach, called behavioral engineering (Geller, 1987), consists of two main strategies: (a) those focusing on the stimuli that signal behavior (SDs), called stimulus control; and (b) those focusing on the reinforcers that follow behavior (SRs), termed contingency management. Both the reinforcers and the reinforcement schedule are important issues in contingency management. Sometimes these approaches are called antecedent and consequence strategies because they specify on what comes before and what comes after behavior.

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