B-3: Define and provide examples of respondent and operant conditioning ©

Target Terms: Respondent Conditioning, Operant Conditioning 

Respondent Conditioning 

Definition: A learning process wherein a previously neutral stimulus (which would not alter behavior) acquires the ability to elicit a response (alter behavior). Respondent behavior is controlled by its antecedents. Respondent conditioning is also known as classical conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning (after the scientist who famously paired food with the sound of a bell to eventually make dogs salivate at the sound of a bell with no food present).

Example in everyday context: The fire alarm at work was previously a neutral stimulus. Then, you had a fire drill while you were standing right next to the alarm! The sound hurt your ears and was quite unpleasant. Through respondent conditioning (pairing of the neutral fire alarm with the aversive sound), you now cringe each time you see the fire alarm even when it is not going off. 

Example in clinical context: During physical therapy, the physical therapist has a client complete various physical activity, which the client greatly dislikes. Each time the client passes the physical therapy room, the client begins to shake and sweat. The previously neutral stimulus (the physical therapy room) through respondent conditioning, elicits the client’s response of shaking and sweating.  

Example in supervision/consultation context: You are just beginning your practicum as a clinical trainee. As soon as you walk in, you supervisor instructs you to begin a quiz about applied behavior analysis, which you do not know anything about yet! You begin to feel sweaty and nervous. Through the process of respondent conditioning, the next time you see your supervisor (a previously neutral stimulus) you become very sweaty and nervous. (Note: Obviously, we shouldn’t do this to people! Instead, pair yourself with reinforcement at the beginning of any relationship with a client or colleague!)

Why it matters: Although respondent behaviors make up a small percentage of behaviors that are of interest to behavior analysts, respondent learning occurs in clinical and day-to-day contexts, and impacts behavior.

Operant Conditioning 

Definition: Consequences that result in an increase or decrease the frequency in the same type of behavior under similar conditions. Operant behaviors are controlled by their consequences.

Example in everyday context: Your cell phone lights up and you see a text from an acquaintance. You respond to the text message. The conversation continues through text, and you enjoy the interactionYou are likely to respond next time the person texts you.

Example in clinical context: A school uses a bell to signal when it is time to transition to the next class period. When the bell rings, a client receives praise if they initiate packing up their belongings within 10 seconds. They are more likely to respond quickly to the transition bell in the future.

Example in supervision/consultation context: A supervisor is researching how to make supervision a more interactive experience for their supervisees. The supervisor decides to provide points on the next quiz for increased participation (asking and answering questions). The supervisees begin to participate more during group supervision.

Why it matters: Behavior analysts are mainly (but not exclusively) focused on operant behavior when they design interventions.

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