Operant Learning is Everywhere

The principles of operant learning are well known.  If, for example, you give your dog treats from the dinner table, it is highly likely that, whenever you eat, the forlorn critter will be nearby looking up at with you with woeful eyes and a salivating mouth. We see examples of operant learning everywhere because it occurs everywhere. And I do mean everywhere. In the 1960s, psychologist Ralph Hefferline conducted an intriguing series of experiments showing that the electrical discharge of very small muscle groups in the arm could be regulated if human participants in the experiment received a reward whenever the electrical firing met the criterion level. Such operant conditioning occurred even though the participants were unable to identify verbally why they were receiving rewards. (Some will recognize this as a precursor to what has come to be called “biofeedback,” where other physiological functions such as heart rate or blood pressure are changed by their consequences.) A couple of decades ago, Larry Stein was reporting that the electrical discharges of single brain cells in the nervous system could be changed by controlling the injection of chemicals into the cell depending on its electrical discharge characteristics.  

The above examples are particularly interesting because psychology often is described as the study of behavior of the “individual.” The most common examples of operant conditioning are, not surprisingly, of individuals, that is “whole people” (or, more generally, “whole organisms”) doing things individuals normally do: work, exercise, interact socially, throw temper tantrums, beg for food at the table (with or without woeful eyes, depending on what has been reinforced in the past). Research like that of Hefferline and Stein extend the meaning of “individual” (at least with respect to operant learning) to include not just “whole individuals” but also at least some of their component parts. Other researchers have shown that operant conditioning occurs when consequences of a group are made dependent on the activity of the group as a whole. Here, the collective action of multiple people replaces the individual as the target of the operant conditioning. When, for example, two individuals are required to work in concert with one another to maximize rewards for both, they do so. The field of organizational behavior management is dedicated to applying operant principles to both individuals and groups of individuals working in concert to achieve organizational objectives.

There has been considerable debate in psychology about the “appropriate” level for explaining behavior, as I have discussed in “Explaining why we do what we do: Reductionism as passing the buck.” Although operant conditioning is demonstrable at the level of the neuron, it does not suggest that all behavior of the individual is explained by (i.e., reduced to) “brain operant learning” any more than it suggests that the behavior of an individual is really explained by “group operant learning.” One level is not reducible to another, either going “down” from the individual to the cells, organs, or tissues of which it is composed or going “up” from the individual to the group. Operant learning occurs everywhere. It isn’t an explanation as much as a tool – it allows us to change behavior in accord with the values deemed appropriate by our society. It can be used everywhere - to calm the firing of brain cells that give rise to epilepsy or Parkinson’s disease, to make people happier and more productive in their work, to ease the troubles of parents with children suffering from skill or attention deficits, and to give that woeful-eyed dog other things to do than beg for food at the table. 

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.