Operant Conditioning and Criminal Behavior

by Tina Handrick
Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for certain types of behaviors (Cherry, nd). Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior. Operant conditioning (or operant learning) is a fundamental learning process that is acquired (or eliminated) by the consequences that follow the behavior. For example, a temper tantrum by a toddler at the checkout counter when she wants some candy from the nearby shelves may prompt the parent to give in and provide the child with the candy. Next time, at the same or similar checkout aisle, the temper-tantrum strategy will be tried again since it worked the first time. The child has learned the consequences of timely temper tantrums (Bartol & Bartol, 2011). In this way a child has learned that if they can time their temper tantrums at certain points of their outing with their parent that they can get what they want, when they want it without repercussions.
Around the turn of the century a man named Edward Thorndike attempted to develop an objective experimental method for the mechanical problem solving ability of cats and dogs. Thorndike project was to devise a number of wooden crates which required various combinations of latches, levers, strings and treadles to open them. Once a dog or cat was put into one of these puzzle-boxes, and it would be put to the test to see if the animal could figure out how to escape from it. The initial aim was to show that the anecdotal achievements of cats and dogs could be replicated in controlled, standardized circumstance; however Thorndike soon realized that he could now measure animal intelligence using this equipment. By setting an task on these animals repeatedly , and measuring the time it took for the animals to solve them Thorndike could then compare them as learning curves in different situation and species (Eckart, 2007).
Thorndike was trying to see if his animals could learn their tasks through imitation or observation, it did not seem to make a difference if a cat was the first one in the puzzle to the last one in for he found that there was no difference in their learning rate on how to escape the box. Occasionally, quite by chance an animal would perform an action which would free it from the box and so when the animal would find itself in the same position again it would more than likely remember it and preform the same action again. The reward of being freed from the box somehow strengthens an association between a stimulus, being in a certain position in the box and an appropriate action and reward acts to strengthen stimulus-response associations (Eckart, 2007).
By 1910 Thorndike had formalized this notion into a 'law' of psychology - the law of effect. In full it reads: "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 to the situation weakened, so that, when it recurs, they will be less likely to occur. The greater the satisfaction or discomfort, the greater the strengthening or weakening of the bond." Thorndike maintained that, in combination with the law of exercise, the notion that associations are strengthen by use and weakened with disuse, and the concept of instinct, the law of effect could explain all of human behavior in terms of the development of myriads of stimulus-response associations. It is worth briefly comparing trial and error learning with classical conditioning. In classical conditioning a neutral stimulus becomes association with part of a reflex (either the US or the UR). In trial and error learning no reflex is involved. A reinforcing or punishing event (a type of stimulus) alters the strength of association between a neutral stimulus and quite arbitrary response. The response is not to any part of a reflex (Eckart, 2007).
Social Learning
The social learning theory of Bandura emphasizes the importance of observing and modeling the behaviors, attitudes, and emotional reactions of others. Bandura (1977) states: "Learning would be exceedingly laborious, not to mention hazardous, if people had to rely solely on the effects of their own actions to inform them what to do. Fortunately, most human behavior is learned observationally through modeling: from observing others one forms an idea of how new behaviors are performed, and on later occasions this coded information serves as a guide for action." (p22). Social learning theory explains human behavior in terms of continuous reciprocal interaction between cognitive, behavioral, an environmental influences. The component processes underlying observational learning are: (1) Attention, including modeled events (distinctiveness, affective valence, complexity, prevalence, functional value) and observer characteristics (sensory capacities, arousal level, perceptual set, past reinforcement), (2) Retention, including symbolic coding, cognitive organization, symbolic rehearsal, motor rehearsal), (3) Motor Reproduction, including physical capabilities, self-observation of reproduction, accuracy of feedback, and (4) Motivation, including external, vicarious and self-reinforcement.
Because it encompasses attention, memory and motivation, social learning theory spans both cognitive and behavioral frameworks. Bandura's theory improves upon the strictly behavioral interpretation of modeling provided by Miller & Dollard (1941).  Bandura’s work is related to the theories of Vygotsky and Lave which also emphasize the central role of social learning.
Social learning theory has been applied extensively to the understanding of aggression (Bandura, 1973) and psychological disorders, particularly in the context of behavior modification (Bandura, 1969). It is also the theoretical foundation for the technique of behavior modeling which is widely used in training programs. In recent years, Bandura has focused his work on the concept of self-efficacy in a variety of contexts (e.g., Bandura, 1997).
From all of these theories you can see that from most perspectives that most criminal behavior is learned behavior. If your child/children are seeing behavior that is wrong or criminal then they are then likely going to follow that behavior. Also if the parent is easily to manipulate as a child grows then they learn how they can start to get away with behaviors that are not acceptable and they learn how to use that to their advantage once they are in the public eye. Parents need to become more aggressive when dealing with their children and make sure that they are better role model for them as they are growing up. There needs to be more consequences for children in the home that misbehave instead of parents ignoring the issues thinking that they will just go away, and by making sure that in the onset of early mental issues it is better to get them the help they need as soon as possible.

Ninth Edition Criminal Behavior A Psychological Approach by Bartol, Curt R. & Bartol Anne M. Copyright ©2011, 2008 Pearson Education, Inc., publishing as Prentice Hall, One Lake Street, Upper Saddle River
Chapter 4 Origins of Criminal Behavior: Learning and Situational Factors; http://docsharing.next.ecollege.com/(NEXT(1879fa44db))/Main/CourseMode/DocSharing/ListCategoriesAndFilesView.ed#
Introduction to Operant Conditioning by Cherry, Kendra nd.-About.com Psychology: http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/introopcond.htm
Operant Conditioning and Behaviorism- an historical outline by Eckart, A 2004-2007: http://genetics.biozentrum.uni-wuerzburg.de/behavior/learning/behaviorism.html
Personality Theories by Boeree, Dr. C. George: http://webspace.ship.edu/cgboer/bandura.html

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1 comment:

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