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Operant Conditioning vs. Clicker Training

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While some use the terms interchangeably, others distinguish between "operant conditioning" (OC) and "clicker training." What is the difference, and how does understanding that difference make us better clicker trainers?

An alert dog

In short, operant conditioning is a natural behavioral phenomenon that occurs in the relationship between humans and animals and their environments. Clicker training is a technology developed in response to that phenomenon.

Operant conditioning was identified in the scientific laboratories of B.F. Skinner in the first half of the twentieth century. He was always fooling around with inventions and experiments and accidentally figured out quite a lot about how the natural world of behavior operates. (Hang onto that word "operates." That's how the word "operant" in "operant conditioning" was derived.) Skinner's discoveries led to the conducting of decades of controlled scientific experiments in laboratories, and also to real-world ("applied") training and experimentation.

Operant conditioning is a concept that describes how behavior and the environment interact. Operant behavior exists because it has repeatedly been followed by a reinforcer in the environment. That reinforcer can be either positive, as in when something is added to the learner's environment when he performs a behavior, or negative, as when something is removed from the learner's environment when he performs a behavior.

When a behavior occurs a reinforcer occurs, resulting in the increase or maintenance of the rate of that behavior in the future. The term "operant" refers to the behavior operating on the environment to produce reinforcers. The reinforcers may be delivered from the fingertips of a clicker trainer, or they may be delivered by the things that are ongoing in the world. A baby's smile results in a mommy picking him up. A friend's intimate confidence results in attention from her friend. Coins inserted in a soda machine result in the delivery of a soft drink. A lover's kiss results in arms being wrapped around his neck… or maybe more!

OC occurs everywhere and anywhere there is an organism with the ability to do anything. Look at your spouse or roommate or child. There is OC operating in their interactions with their environments. Look out your window. See that squirrel, that grackle, that sparrow? There is OC at work in those organisms as well. Your dog, your cat, your parrot? There is OC there. See that cockroach, that worm, that ladybug? OC is also guiding their behavior. Even amoebas and germs learn by operant conditioning. Unattached muscle tissue learns by OC. Experiments have demonstrated that muscles in human bodies can be taught to twitch through reinforcement without the owner of that muscle being aware it is happening.

Look in the mirror. There is OC in the behavior of the person you see there.

OC doesn't care whether we believe in it or not. OC just is, like evaporation or gravity or radioactivity. It's a phenomenon at work in the natural world. If I do not believe in gravity, I will still fall to Earth if I jump from the branches of a tree. If I do not believe in OC, I will still enter my house through the entrance that opened as a result of my turning of the key in the lock and pushing on the door. It is not just something you do to animals, but is the explanation for how behavior interacts with the environment.

Some people have learned how to use OC in effective teaching technologies. One of the technologies (but not the only one) is clicker training (and TAGteach, the parallel method for teaching humans). It is a training method through which trainers harness operant conditioning. This can be done effectively or ineffectively. We can improve our clicker training skills by better understanding the principles of the phenomenon on which they are based. In other words, improving our understanding of OC is reinforced by better results in our clicker training!

Kellie Snider, BCABA
Behavior Logic EZine

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