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The San Mateo CBT Clinic provides therapy for anxiety disorders in children, teens, and adults. Jonah Lakin PsyD is a licensed clinical psychologist specializing in Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) for Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic disorder, phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD),  social anxiety disorder/social phobia, agorophobia, emetophobia (fear of vomiting), illness anxiety disorder, trichotillomania (hair pulling), & excoriation (skin-picking).

San Mateo CBT Clinic blog about anxiety treatment

Anxiety Blog. Describes CBT principles involved in treatment for anxiety disorders in children and adults. Conditions discussed include: Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD), panic disorder, phobia, Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD),  social anxiety disorder/social phobia, agorophobia, emetophobia (fear of vomiting), illness anxiety disorder, trichotillomania (hair pulling), & excoriation (skin-picking).

Operant Conditioning: Changing Behavior

Jonah Lakin

Operant Conditioning is a type of learning in which behaviors are made more or less likely to occur in the future. Whereas classical conditioning pairs a neutral stimulus with a reflexive response, operant conditioning uses outcomes to modify future behavior.

"Outcomes" refers to what happens shortly after a behavior occurs. For instance, let’s pretend that I have a big test tomorrow and I stay up all night cramming, and get an A. In this case:

  • Behavior: cramming all night
  • Outcome: get an A

Likewise, let’s say that I am really anxious about having to take a test, and I take a prescription medication that calms me down. In this case:

  • Behavior: take a pill
  • Outcome: feel less anxious

Lastly, let’s say that I give a speech and everyone laughs at me or boos me off the stage. In this case:

  • Behavior: public speaking
  • Outcome: get booed and laughed at 

As you can see, outcomes aren’t inherently “good” or “bad;” they are simply what happens shortly after a behavior. 

Now that you know what an outcome is, consider that there are three different kinds of outcomes: 

  1. Outcomes that make a behavior more likely to occur in the future 
  2. Outcomes that make a behavior less likely to occur in the future 
  3. Outcomes that have no impact on the behavior that preceded them

Let’s first focus on outcomes that increase the likelihood that a behavior will occur in the future. These outcomes are called reinforcers, and the process of increasing the likelihood of a behavior in the future is called reinforcement.  

There are two kinds of reinforcers: positive and negative. People often become confused by these terms, because in everyday language positive and negative are valence judgements referring to good and bad. In psychological science, positive and negative are more like mathematical terms. Positive really means addition or adding; negative really means subtracting or taking away. 

Positive Reinforcement means that something is added that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future. In the example above, my cramming behavior is positively reinforced by getting an A.  The A wasn’t in the environment before; it was added in response to my behavior. 

Negative Reinforcement means that something is taken away that increases the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future. In the case of the medication, I am being negatively reinforced. Something in the environment is removed (my anxiety) and this makes me more likely to take a pill again in the future.  

Now let’s examine outcomes that decrease the likelihood that a behavior will occur in the future.  These outcomes are called punishments. Just as there two kinds of reinforcers, punishments can also be positive and negative. 

Positive Punishment means that something is added to the environment that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future. If I get up to give my speech and everyone laughs at me and boos me off the stage, this is a form of positive punishment. Something aversive was added to the environment (booing and laughing at me), and this makes me less likely to speak publicly in the future. 

Negative Punishment means that something is taken away from the environment that decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring in the future. Let’s say that every day after school, I play video games for two hours before I start my homework. Today, since I hit another child at school, my parents take away my video game privileges. This is negative punishment; something is taken away (video game privileges), and I’ll be less likely to hit another child in the future. 

It’s very important to realize that reinforcement and punishment is in the eye of the beholder. If I give a three year old boy $5 for saying please and thank you, it may have no impact on him. To a young child, money often means nothing as they generally can’t understand it’s value. On the other hand, if I give a three year old boy a stuffed animal for saying please and thank you, I have positively reinforced his polite behavior. Likewise, money might be a great way to reinforce an adult, but a stuffed animal would not be effective. 

Summary:

  • Outcomes refer to what happens after a behavior. 
  • Outcomes can increase the likelihood that a behavior occurs again in the future (reinforcement)
  • Outcomes can decrease the likelihood that a behavior occurs again in the future (punishment)
  • Reinforcement and punishment can be positive or negative. Positive and negative do NOT refer to good and bad. Positive means that something is added to the environment. Negative means that something is removed (subtracted) from the environment.
  • Reinforcement and punishment are in the eye of the beholder

- Dr. Lakin