When one hears the term instrumental (operant) conditioning they tend to immediately think of the "Skinner-Box". Skinner conducted classic experiments where he trained rats and pigeons to press a lever in order to obtain a food reward. The experimenter would choose a suited output to pair it with a consequence. After a training period, the animals would show the behavior (BH, e.g. pressing the lever) even in absence of any reward, if the BH-US association had been memorized. Instrumental conditioning differs from classical conditioning in that it operates on the environment and refers to the modification of voluntary behavior. For the purposes of this paper I will evaluate the application of instrumental conditioning to learning how to use the toilet (potty-training). I will describe the process of potty-training, and compare and contrast the concepts of positive and negative reinforcement as they relate to potty-training. I will explain the role of reward and punishment in potty-training as well as explain which form of instrumental conditioning would be most effective in potty-training. What is Instrumental Conditioning?
"Instrumental conditioning is a process by which humans and animals learn to behave in such a way as to obtain rewards and avoid punishments. It is also the name for the paradigm in experimental psychology by which such learning and action selection processes are studied" (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). All behavior is guided by consequences. Dogs beg/perform tricks for treats; politicians study poll results in order to steer the directions of their campaigns. Instrumental conditioning similarly is goal-oriented behavior. The selecting consequences that guide operant conditioning are of two kinds: behavior-enhancing (reinforcers) and behavior-suppressing (punishers).
The most important factor in instrumental conditioning is the consequence of the response. "Responding often seems to be under exquisite control of the reinforcement conditions: Larger and tastier rewards provoke more vigorous response, delayed rewards weaken responding, and satiation of drive leads to a reduction in responding" (Terry, 2009). This consequence takes place because of an arranged contingency (relationship) between the occurrence of the response and the delivery of the reinforcer. The response is "instrumental" in acquiring the reinforcer, which is the reason this type of conditioning is referred to as instrumental conditioning. The response in turn "operates" on the environment causing a kind of change which is why it is also known as operant conditioning. Instrumental Conditioning and Potty-Training
The Process of Potty-Training. Potty-training---the process of training a young child to use the toilet. Children typically begin to exhibit signs of readiness between the ages of 12 to 18 months and the process is usually fully completed by the time the child reaches 4 years old. Generally it takes longer to learn to stay dry during the night, however most children have mastered this by age 4. Cultural factors also play a role in determining the appropriate age of readiness for potty-training, with Americans usually beginning training later than other cultures (Paul, 2008).
Potty-training is a mutual activity requiring cooperation, understanding and agreement between the child and the caregiver. The best methods emphasize consistency and positive reinforcement (over punishment) in order to make it a pleasant experience for the child. Research suggests that around 18 months old is the ideal time to start training due to the child's eagerness to please his/her parents.
Positive and Negative Reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to the presence of a response-to-reinforcer relationship. "In positive reinforcement, the reinforcer is contingent on performance of the instrumental response" (Terry, 2009). Each action is followed by an outcome or consequence.