Operant Conditioning - Superstitions Essay Examples
Meaning-making is an integral part of society. Cognitive dissonance and restlessness occur when an event, object, or phenomenon cannot be explained. This is why superstitions exist. Superstitions are described as an irrational, illogical explanation brought about by lack of knowledge and “fear of the unknown” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). The question is how do superstitions continue to thrive in society? Such can be explained through the Operant Conditioning theory.
Operant Conditioning: Historical Perspective
Burrus Frederick Skinner is the proponent of the Operant Conditioning theory. The theory is rooted from Ivan Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning theory. B.F. Skinner. In 1901, Pavlov conducted an experiment to determine if dogs can associate the sound a bell to feeding (Jarvis, 2013). No salivation occurred when Pavlov rang the bell; subsequently, he rang the bell before every feeding time which conditioned the dogs to think that every time the bell rings, they will be fed (McLeod, 2014). In 1920, John Watson tried Pavlov’s experiment in humans through Little Albert (Jarvis, 2013). This experiment proved that conditioning can induce phobias. A 9-month-old baby, Little Albert was subjected to pictures of a rat, rabbit, monkey, and various masks. He exhibited no emotional reactions at this point. When the picture of the rat was shown, a rod was struck; this created noise which made Little Albert cry. Eventually, Little Albert cried when the picture of the rat was shown – even without the noise of the rod (McLeod, 2008). The works of Pavlov and Watson showed that for a reaction or behavior to exist, there must be a prior stimulus. This prompted Skinner to demonstrate that a behavior can also exist when the stimulus is presented after the behavior (McLeod, 2014).
Operant Conditioning: Defined
Operant conditioning is the association of behavior to the consequences or results. It is characterized by reinforcements and punishments. Behavior persists when reinforced; and behavior ends when punished (McLeod, 2014). B.F. Skinner focused on the external factors that influence behavior.
Essentially, reinforcements increase behavior. There are two (2) types of reinforcements: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is the giving or adding of a desirable object or event to reinforce behavior change (McLeod, 2014). An example of this is when a preschooler is given a lollipop for every correct answer during recitation. Negative reinforcement is taking away or subtracting an undesirable object or event to reinforce behavior change (McLeod, 2008). An example of this is when a mother stops scolding a toddler and talks to him instead about his wrongdoings.
Punishments decrease behavior. There are also two (2) types of punishments: positive and negative. Positive punishment is the giving of an unfavorable event or object to weaken the undesirable behavior such as hitting a child (as a form of disciplinary measure) when he exhibits misdemeanor. Negative punishment is taking away of a favorable event to decrease an undesirable behavior such as in the practice of grounding adolescents.
Operant Conditioning and Superstitions
According to Mackie (n.d.), superstitions are formed when there is accidental reinforcement. Skinner was able to observe this in one of his experiments involving pigeons. He brought out food for pigeons regularly, and the pigeons accidentally associated whatever it is they were doing at that particular time with the food. For example, Skinner’s operant conditioning chamber/food dispenser is set to give food every 15 minutes. At that particular time, it just so happened that the pigeons are spinning around in circles or nodding their heads. These behaviors are immediately accidentally reinforced.
Humans are prone to generalize and conclude from few occurrences. Personally, the most memorable superstition for me is it is bad luck to walk under a staircase or ladder. Probably, the origin of this superstition lies on the fact that staircases and ladders are used by busy people. They could be workers who carry weights, cement, buckets of water, and the like. These objects will most likely fall from the stairs to the people walking below. Occurrences like these could have made people to conclude that it is bad luck to walk under staircases or ladders.
The operant conditioning states that when a behavior is reinforced, it is more likely to increase. In the aforementioned superstition, the behavior is walking under the staircase and the reinforcements are the objects falling from the staircase. Repeated reinforcement, accumulated from stories of different people from different places but with the same experiences, will lead to a concrete belief. This belief may not be rational or logical; however, people still deem it as factual.
A friend keeps avoiding that her pictures be taken. At first, we all thought she was just shy. Later on, she admitted that she, though mildly, believes that the camera steals and traps souls. Upon research, I have come across the origin of this belief. In the 19th century, the invention and release of the camera, people believed that cameras in fact steal souls. However, this behavior existed only because the technology is new to them. As for my friend, the flash of the camera surprises and scares her, thus forming her superstition. We, then, tried taking pictures of her without using the camera flash. She told us that she may be able to comfortable take pictures without the flash. Disproving the belief is a way to rid of a person’s superstition.
Jarvis, M. (2013). Timeline of the behaviorist approach. Retrieved from https://www.hoddereducation.co.uk
Mackie, C. (n.d.). Operant conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.massey.ac.nz/~wwpapajl/evolution/assign2/CM/oper.html
McLeod, S. (2014). Pavlov – Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org
McLeod, S. (2014). Skinner-Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from http://www.simplypsychology.org/operant-conditioning.html
Operant Conditioning (Skinner). (2015). Retrieved from www.learning-theories.com
Pegg, D. (2013). 25Most Popular Superstitions Around the World. Retrieved from http://list25.com/25-strangest-superstitions-ever/3/
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