Primary author:
Oyebola Ladeinde



Operant conditioning is behavior that is controlled by its consequences (Staddon and Cerutti, 2004). Scientists that have studied causes of behavior modification came to the conclusion that human beings and animals are more likely to perform actions that give them some form of satisfaction and also more likely to avoid actions that cause them some form of discomfort. The study of operant conditioning was initiated by Edward Thorndike in 1911 when he came up with the Law of Effect which states that
"Of several responses made to the same situation, those which are accompanied or closely followed by satisfaction to the animal will, other things being equal, be more firmly connected with the situation, so that, when it recurs, they will be more likely to recur; those which are accompanied or closely followed by discomfort to the animal will, other things being equal, have their connections with that situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur" (Thorndike, 1911;p. 244).
The Law of Effect was the first indication that animals did not act out of pure animal instinct but were more likely to act as a result of the feelings of satisfaction the animal derived from performing that action previously. In the same token, if the animal received a discomfort, such as pain or a very loud bang after performing an action, it will probably not perform that action again.
Thirty years later, BF Skinner came along and modified the Law of Effects. He came up with the definitive description of operant conditioning and the instrumental tools needed to make it happen. He described a process where the animal and humans are conditioned to perform certain tasks in order to earn rewards or avoid punishment (Skinner, 1956).
Skinner also described the tools of operative conditioning i.e. reinforcement, punishment and extinction (Thompson and Hollon, 2008). The reinforcement tools basically encourage the repetition of an action, punishment discourages the repetition of the action and extinction has no obvious effect on whether the action is repeated or not. Reinforcement and punishment could be further categorized as positive (when an incentive is added) or negative (when an incentive is withdrawn)
The works of Skinner and Thorndike have been applied to public health extensively since their works were published. It has been recognized by employers, politicians, parents, teachers, policy makers etc worldwide that most human conduct is controlled and determined by reinforcers such as symbols of recognition, social approval or increase in affection from employers, teachers, parents and peers (Warner and Murt, 1984; Pimpkin and Volmer, 2009; Leeks et al, 2010). Specific examples of the use of operant conditioning can be seen in worksite based incentives to reduce the use of tobacco products and economic incentives to promote behaviors that improve general health. A negative reinforcement could be the taxes that have to be paid on those things that might be detrimental to health like tobacco products and the proposed taxes on soda. Examples of positive reinforcement are the premium differential on life insurance that non-smokers are afforded, the payment for gym memberships some employers offer or bonus in paychecks for those employees that participate and/or succeed in weight loss programs. An example of a negative punishment is the refusal of some companies to employ smokers or alcoholics based on the greatly increased risk of disability and also the continuing employment of the morbidly obese contingent on their enrollment in a weight loss program.
Specific public health studies have used positive reinforcement to encourage the repitition or extinction of specific actions. Theseinclude studies where drug addicts have been motivated to quit by their significant others. The encouragement and acceptance by concerned significant others (CSOs)was proven to increase the motivation to quit by the addicts. The CSOs were trained on what to say and how to behave around their loved ones so as to modify their behavior. The ARISE (A relational sequence for engagement )program a study reported by Meyers et al claims a 83% success rate in getting their loved one to abstain(Landau et al, 2004). Similar success rates were reported in the CRAFT (community reinforcement and family training ) program where abstinence both from illicit drugs and alcohol increased significantly for drug users engaged in the program (Meyers,1998). Positive reinforcement has also been used in toilet training of autistic children. Positive reinforcement and punishment, combined with practice trials and guidance reduced urination accidents to zero within 7-11 days of training (Cicero,2002).

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