Psychological Conditioning-B.F. Skinner versus Ivan Pavlov: Theories of Operant and Classical Conditioning
February 18, 2017
This paper will examine the theories and practices of two well-known psychologists: B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov. Both of these men held their own distinct theories on the method of conditioning in both humans and non-humans. Ivan Pavlov came up with the theory of classical conditioning by testing on animals. He theorized that a neutral stimulus could be used to condition animals to have a certain response. The most notable example of this is Pavlov’s dog experiment, wherein he would ring a bell, (which is a stimulus that would have previously been considered neutral because it did not produce a response,) and then he would feed the dog. The dog began to associate the bell with being fed, and started to salivate when it heard the bell ring. Pavlov had successfully created a connection in the animal’s brain caused by presenting the stimuli.
B.F. Skinner researched, and held to, the theory of operant conditioning, whereby an individual would become conditioned by their environment. In his theory, behaviors could be either strengthened or weakened by applying awards and punishments to certain behaviors. He theorized that by providing positive reinforcement, (praising one’s actions, for example,) an individual would learn to keep performing the desired behavior. However, by withholding praise, one would learn not to repeat a certain behavior.
This paper will attempt to thoroughly clarify the lives and philosophies of each of these psychologists, and to explain various aspects of the ongoing research in the application of conditioning in psychology, and to point out both praises and criticisms of both classical and operant conditioning.
B.F. Skinner versus Ivan Pavlov: Theories of Operant and Classical Conditioning
Of all of the well-known behavioral psychologists, B.F. Skinner and Ivan Pavlov are two of the most famous. However, there has been much debate as to whose assertions on conditioning were correct. Some argue that one or the other was entirely accurate with his individual theories, while others believe that both were correct in some ways. Even those who disagree with one of the theorists generally admit that both theories on conditioning are accurate, at least to some extent (Kirsch & Lynn, 2004).
Ivan Petrovich Pavlov
Chambers Biographical Dictionary (2011,) states that Ivan Pavlov was born in 1849, near Ryazan, Russia. His father was a priest, and early in his life, Pavlov had aspirations of becoming a priest as well. However, he later decided to pursue a more scientific career, and began to study physiology, and worked as the chief of the division on physiology at the Imperial Institute of Experimental Medicine. There, he was encouraged by officials at the institute to perform parts of his training in a laboratory environment, which allowed Pavlov to have access to a number of talented researchers and assistants (Pavlov, 2011). His work was chiefly based in the areas of the circulatory system, the digestive system, and higher nervous activity including the brain. Throughout Pavlov’s life, he was always interested in the inner workings of animals, and how they related to those of humans, thus much of his research was in this area. Pavlov later won the Nobel Prize in Physiology (Pavlov, 2011).
While he conducted many experiments throughout his career, Pavlov is, perhaps, best remembered for his dog experiment. Pavlov decided to conduct an experiment where a bell was rung anytime that food was offered to a dog. Over time, the dog learned that the sound of the bell meant that food was present, and began to salivate when it heard the bell ring, even when there was no food. This experiment allowed Pavlov to compare and contrast the learned response of a dog salivating in response to the bell ringing, with the dog’s natural response of salivating when food was presented (Pavlov, 2014).
Since he was still concerned with the study of physiology, Pavlov prohibited any use of language which he considered psychological in nature from being used in his laboratory. If he overheard his assistants talking about the dog’s ‘feelings,’ or saying that the dog ‘understood’ or ‘knew’ something, he would make the assistant pay a fine (Crain, 2011).
Pavlov believed that once a reflex had been conditioned to a particular stimulus, he could elicit the same reflex via a stimulus that was slightly different. For example, a dog may learn that the sound of a bell signifies that food is coming, but the sound of a bell with a completely different sound may illicit the same reflex. However, he also believed that over time, the dog will learn that if only one type of bell signifies food, to ignore the sounds of the other bells, and to only respond to the one that it knows will bring food (Crain, 2011).
Pavlov’s theory also stated that once a stimulus was established, it would not be everlasting. He learned that, although he could create a conditioned stimulus/response connection, (associating a bell with food, thus causing salivation,) that he could easily undo the response, (ringing the bell intermittently without presenting food, which eventually lead to a smaller and smaller levels of salivation.) He theorized that any stimulus/response connection could be undone (Crain, 2011).
According to the Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical Conditioning, even before Pavlov began his investigation, researchers had been making advances in the study of human behavior that appeared to be Pavlovian in theory, (for example, Locke had theorized that knowledge is based upon associations,) but Pavlov himself gets credit for first discovering and researching classical conditioning as it is known today, because he chose to go beyond what had already been proposed, and to determine multiple principles of association by conducting various experiments. Pavlov was the first to take the theory of learning and conditioning from basic ideas to an actual scientific principle which could be experimented on, studied, and proven. Pavlov’s theory of conditioning is defined by its method, which involves the strict control over the stimuli which are present (Murphy, 2014).
Though many agree that Pavlov’s theory is correct, there are some critics who take issue with his ideas. Some believe that Pavlov’s experiments were too simplistic in their design, and that more in depth analysis needed to be done in order to gain a true understanding of learning. It has also been said that since classical conditioning can generally only be achieved through new stimuli and innate reflexes that it is not always applicable (Wenger, 1937).
In recent years, scholars have continued building upon the study of conditioning, which they have based upon Pavlov’s early results. One study, as discussed in the article Unconditioned Responses and Functional Fear Networks in Human Classical Conditioning, focused on the unconditioned responses and functional fear networks in classical conditioning, while showing that non-painful, but undesirable unconditioned stimuli can yield regional responses similar to those recounted in previous pain studies. When the stimulus was anticipated, but did not occur, brain activity was visible which could be compared to the activity seen during intense anxiety, this shows that expectancy is a factor in conditioning, and that fear is a leads to altered regional influences among the brain regions involved in predicting safety and danger (Linnman, Rougemont-Bucking, Beucke, Zeffiro, & Milad, 2011).
Burrhus Frederic Skinner
According to the book Psychology’s Grand Theorists: How Personal Experiences Shaped Professional Ideas, by (Demorest, 2005), Burrhus Frederic Skinner was born to a middle class family in 1904 in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Demorest states that Skinner initially set out to study literature, and wanted to be a poet, but eventually decided to study psychology when he entered the graduate program at Harvard. There, his theories and ideas, (though they were thought to be fanatical,) brought him a great amount of attention from the psychological community, he was known to be extremely meticulous in the details of his research, and eventually became enormously respected. Skinner wrote two books, one of which was a novel, which perpetuated his desire to improve society through behavioral control (Demorest, 2005).
Demorest goes on to discuss Skinner’s model, which has several basic principles. First, he proposed that there is a difference between two kinds of behavior, (respondents and operants,) and that respondents are behaviors which are caused by a response to a stimulus in the environment. He also proposed that most behavior which is carried out by operants, however, is the most complex. Operants are not caused by external stimuli, but are instead enacted by the organism in order to operate on the environment (Demorest, 2005).
In other words, respondent behavior is carried out after something transpires to make it happen, but operant behavior is carried out for the purpose of making something happen. He maintained that these two types of behavior are not the same as a voluntary or involuntary response, because this way of thinking assumes that respondent behaviors are not controlled by the organism. He asserted that, instead, all behaviors are under complete control of their environment, even if they are thought to be voluntary. Voluntary responses would not exist if there was no reward or punishment given (Demorest, 2005).
Operant behavior is that which is controlled by its consequences, as discussed by Staddon, 2003, in an article on operant conditioning in the Annual Review of Psychology, which attempts to review studies and hypothetical methodologies of two major classes of operant behavior. It has been shown in these studies that temporal control may be involved in a wide variety of operant conditioning procedures in a variety of unpredicted ways, and that operant conditioning is the study of reversible behavior which is maintained by reinforcement schedules (Staddon & Cerutti, 2011).
Skinner also alleged that there are three major processes which are controlled by their environmental consequences: reinforcement, extinction, and punishment. In reinforcement, a behavior will increase in frequency because it is being positively reacted to. In extinction, a behavior will decrease, because there is no positive reinforcement, and in punishment the behavior will decrease because it is followed by something negative, or the removal of something positive (Demorest, 2005).
Skinner believed that punishment is probably the most common means of attempting to control human behavior, but he was averse to its use. He believed that punishment does not really work, even though it may seem to do so initially, in the sense that, in general, the immediate consequence of punishment is a lessening of the unwanted behavior. However, he believed that once the punishment was no longer a threat, the behavior would reappear, and that punishment also leads to negative emotions, such as fear and anger, and that this is not representative of a true behavioral change, but instead, a temporary reaction (Demorest, 2005).
Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is based upon the notion that learning is a change in explicit behavior. According to this theory, one’s behavior changes based upon the individual’s responses to stimuli in their environment. This theory varies from the theory of classical conditioning presented by Ivan Pavlov in the sense that Pavlov believed that a neutral stimulus will not produce a response by itself, but that an unconditioned stimulus will produce an unconditioned response. Both of these responses lead to learning, but classical conditioning is a comparison of two stimuli, while operant conditioning is a comparison of a behavior and a response (Demorest, 2005).
Skinner believed that there were several principles of conditioning. For example, he proposed that operant behavior is not learned all at once, but that behavior is shaped gradually over a period of time. He also believed that behavior can be shaped at a higher rate if a response is reinforced promptly, and that by waiting too long after a behavior has occurred to offer a response, that it is less likely to be reinforced. Another of his principles focused on ‘behavior chains,’ which builds upon the idea of gradually shaping behavior. Another principle that Skinner proposed was that while a new behavior takes time to learn, once it is learned, it can grow and then, more and more behaviors can be learned because of the initial behavior (Crain, 2011).
Similar to Pavlov’s respondent behavior experiments, Skinner’s experiments on operant behavior were also shown to have the ability to be extinguished. In operant behavior, a child may learn that if it cries, it will receive attention. Over time, this behavior may become annoying to the parent, who has to constantly provide attention to the child to keep them from crying. The parent may then stop giving the child attention when they cry, and eventually, the child will ‘unlearn’ the behavior, because the stimuli no longer produces the desired response (Crain, 2011).
The majority of his principles were focused on positive behavioral reinforcement. However, Skinner also suggested that behavior could be shaped by negative reinforcement, but he believed that punishment is not useful in strengthening a particular behavior, but in eliminating it, but he objected to punishment as a means of behavior control, and insisted that any behavior which seems to disappear when a punishment is presented will reappear later (Crain, 2011).
Aside from his research on conditioning, Skinner contributed much to the theory of psychology. The article On Certain Similarities between Mainstream Psychology and the Writings of B. F. Skinner (Goddard, 2012), discusses Skinner’s theories as they relate to modern psychology. In the article, Skinner’s theories on the role of the unconscious, human language, human perceptions of conformity bias, the role of dispositions in psychology, and mindfulness are discussed. There is also a discussion of the fact that one’s environment can unconsciously affect human behavior. The article attempts to push Skinner’s ideas and research into the spotlight, and to make certain that his work is respected in modern day psychology (Goddard, 2012).
Classical versus Operant Conditioning
In The Role of Cognition in Classical and Operant Conditioning, from the Journal of Clinical Psychology, it is said that in the field of behavioral psychology, the theories of both Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner are respected and believed to hold merit. However, the idea of conditioning as a cognitive process has always been fiercely debated, and there are many modern day psychologists who believe that classical and operant conditionings are completely opposite. There are also those who believe that cognition and conditioning are rival hypotheses (Kirsch & Lynn, 2004).
The Journal of Clinical Psychology also states that while there is little doubt that both types of conditioning can reliably lead to changes in behavior, there has still been much speculation that since conditioning comes to fruition based upon stimulus-response. This theory is states that conditioning is not really a form of learning at all, but an involuntary change in behavior that individuals have no control over (Kirsch et.al., 2004).
Traditionally, operant and classical conditioning have been loosely defined as types of learning in which stimulus-response associations are formed. An article in the Journal of Clinical Psychology discussed the fact that in recent years, conditioning theorists have come to believe that conditioning is any procedure which leads to a change in behavior. It is believed that conditioning trials produce expectancies, and it is the expectancy that produces the response (Kirsch, et. al., 2004).
Skinner himself pointed out that Pavlov studied responses that were best thought of respondents, (which are responses that are spontaneously produced by known stimuli.) He believed that Pavlov’s experiments only showed another side to natural reflexes, instead of truly affecting learning. He also criticized Pavlov’s experiments in the sense that the subjects of Pavlov’s research were generally harnessed in, and that in his own research, the subjects were able to move about freely, which was able to prove operant behavior is reinforced by certain stimuli. He believed that any prior stimuli which may have elicited the same response would be eliminated in a Pavlovian experiment. He believed that his operant behavior is much more closely related to human life than respondent behavior (Crain, 2011).
In the past, the effect of cognition on either classical or operant conditioning has been thought of as a given fact. There has been little debate about the topic, because it has seemed to be assumed that one has expectancy, or is consciously aware, of what is to come, and this was believed to be true no matter how simple or complex the organism. However, some studies have shown that this is not the case. In a study which compared the theory expectancy is not a causal relation between expectancy and response to cognitive theory, which mediates the effects of conditioning, and asserts that conditioning trials produce expectancies, and that it is the expectancy which produces the response. These studies showed that the more complex the organism, the smaller the role of automatic conditioning processes, and the larger the role of cognition (Kirsch, et. al., 2004).
As stated earlier, Pavlov was highly opposed to the idea that his subjects had thoughts or feelings of their own. The same was true for Skinner, who believed that even though thoughts are present, they are never anything more than products of learned behavior. He believed that any thought that exists only exists because in the past, the behavior that is being thought of has led to a positive reinforcement. Skinner acknowledged that feelings exist, but argued that feelings do not cause behavior either. He believed that emotions should be looked at as products of environmental control (Crain, 2011).
Others have attempted to continue, and expound upon, the research and theories of their predecessors, while also attempting to repair any shortcomings they perceive. The article Classical Conditioning since Pavlov (Bitterman, 2006), discusses the fact that while Pavlov’s work was revolutionary, that there has been little research done to try to gain any new knowledge on the theory of classical conditioning, and states that recent papers written on the subject have not given hope that a new, more satisfactory theory is on the horizon (Bitterman, 2006).
Bitterman explains that there are several criticisms of Pavlov’s research and theories, such as the assumption that Pavlov was incorrect about the importance of conditioned stimulus-unconditioned stimulus connection, and that conditioning is based not upon that connection, but rather, upon contingency, or the idea that behavior is imminent. However, Bitterman concludes that the reason that there has been no significant advance in the theory of classical conditioning is that there is no advancement to be made, and that Pavlov was a pioneer, whose theories and research were incredibly advanced, as such that there is not much room for improvement (Bitterman, 2006).
Throughout the history of the study of psychology, there have been many revolutionary ideas. Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner are only two of the psychologists who have made an enormous impact on the field of psychology as a whole. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to try to determine whose theory on conditioning was more accurate. It is safe to say that both Pavlov and Skinner’s theories hold merit, and that it is important to respect the works of both men, and to learn what each of them had to contribute, while incorporating their theories and ideas into any new research being conducted.
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