Our Operant Behavior
In some ways operant behaviors are the most important of all of our behaviors. We will therefore discuss operant behavior first. A good general way to identify which of our many behaviors is operant is to identify its physiological roots. Operant behavior is influenced by our central nervous system (our brain and spinal chord) and it is executed by thinking and/or by moving. This may sound simple, but of course, it is not. We use movement to talk, write, send email, to make and rear children, and to make war, etc. Movements require the use our skeletal (striped) muscles, which involves so much of our operant behavior.
The Simple Contingency
A simple contingency (con-tin-gin-see) only specifies that one thing must happen (a specific behavior) before another thing happens (a consequence). It includes only a behavior and a consequence.
So, for example, if you want the door to open, you must turn the knob and pull or push. If you want a home loan you must select a mortgage company and make-out an application. The door is likely to open and the loan likely to be granted, contingent upon your doing the appropriate behavior. Similarly, a child may learn to make a polite request because that gets him what he wants. Or, a child may learn to throw a temper tantrum because that gets him what he wants.
A more complicated contingency involves three separate things. This is called the three-term-contingency and it involves 1. the situation or events that happen before a behavior, 2. the behavior, and 2. the consequence. Operant behavior takes place in the real world in countless fluid ways. But all operant behavior can easily be seen in this before, behavior, and after context. From birth to death we are immersed in a universe of three-term-contingencies. Again, the three parts to the world of our operant thoughts and actions are.
1. The stimuli or cues from our environment that precede our actions.
2. Our specific behaviors or actions in the presence of those stimuli or cues.
3. The consequences of our actions that may strengthen or weaken the probability that we will do those actions again in the future.
Human operant behavior changes as its physical and social environment changes and as the consequences of behavior change. We should not miss the fact that normally the most skilled sailors live by the sea, the best trackers and hunters live in the forest, and the best mountain climbers live in the mountains. When people in these environments behave effectively they are rewarded: they eat well and prosper. If they fail to do so, they may perish.
It took a detailed scientific analysis, based upon E. L. Thorndike’s (1987) Law of Effect, to understand and appreciate how the environment shapes our behavior into complex bundles of actions that are both common among most everyone and also those that are unique to each of us. The law of effect relates to operant behavior and, as you may recall, it simply states that consequences control operant behavior.
Dr. Tom 4/21/10