What Does It Mean to Emit a Response

In behavioral circles it is common to hear expressions like “the child emitted the response” or “the rat emitted a bar press.” Use of the verb “emit” comes from an old distinction in psychology.

We learn very early in our training as behavior analysts that there are two types of conditioning: classical, or Pavlovian, conditioning and operant conditioning. (Sometimes the term ‘learning” is substituted for conditioning, especially in the case of operant behavior, but the meaning of the two terms is, practically speaking, similar if not identical). In Pavlovian conditioning, the response is labeled the unconditional response if it is elicited by some stimulus, like the salivary response of a dog is elicited by meat powder. The conditional response is elicited by a (previously) neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with the unconditional stimulus (meat powder, in the classic [so to speak] example).  The operative word here is “elicited,” suggesting that the stimulus – US or CS -is automatically calling forth either the unconditional or conditional response or conditioned response. Pavlovian conditioning historically is associated with biologically wired reflexes, things like the salivary reflex whereby our bodies automatically salivate when food is placed in the mouth or the knee-jerk reflex that sometimes is tested when we go to doctors. It frequently is described as an automatic, or non-voluntary, response to the kinds of stimuli noted.

Operant conditioning often is characterized as involving non-reflexive behavior, which also has been called “voluntary” behavior. Thought of in this way the organism does not “have” to automatically or reflexively make the operant response when presented with a stimulus. The implication can be taken to be that the response occurs not because it is “wired” into the nervous system, but because the organism chooses to make it. Thus, the response is said to be emitted and the organism is said to emit a response. In a similar vein, the operant response also is described as a free operant, basically meaning that it is not an automatically elicited reflexive response. Emitted suggests that the response is voluntary and contrasts to the elicited, involuntary nature of reflexive or classically conditioned behavior.

The problem is that the whole involuntary/voluntary distinction has always been tricky. Reflexive behavior is automatically elicited by the stimulus, but well-trained operant behavior is as automatic as reflexive behavior in that it occurs reliably under the prescribed conditions. The source of its automaticity, however, is not biological but rather is the result of particular learning histories. So, the question is whether the organism really is choosing to respond, or is it responding based on a long history of reinforcement of such responding?