Law of Effect

Law of Effect

Operant conditioning is what you learn as a result of observing the consequences of your actions. You can lean this through positive or negative reinforcement. A child who receives praise and possibly treats for using the potty is likely to use the potty the next time he needs the toilet. This is an example of positive reinforcement. A child who fails to complete his homework may have his mobile phone taken away from him until he begins handing his homework in on time. This is known as negative reinforcement. The observable fact that people learn to adopt certain types of behaviour by experiencing both good and bad consequences is known as the Law of Effect.

Thorndike did a lot of research in this area and his experiment with a cat in a ‘puzzle box’ has been influential in understanding how people behave. Thorndike trapped the cat in a small puzzle box from which it could escape only by pulling on a piece of string. The cat only discovered this by accident. Each subsequent occasion the cat was placed in the puzzle box it managed to escape more quickly.

B F Skinner (1938) was the scientist most influential in getting us to understand the idea of negative and positive reinforcement. In his case he used a hungry rat which, by accident, discovered it could release a pellet of food by pressing down on a lever. The rat also learnt that the small electric shocks Skinner occasionally gave it could be stopped by pressing down another lever.

Note that there is a difference between negative reinforcement and punishments. Operant conditioning is about getting someone to behave in a certain way, not preventing them from performing a specific action. Somebody who touches a boiling saucepan is very unlikely to touch it again but this is not negative reinforcement because the girl is not being encouraged towards a certain kind of behaviour. If, however, a girl finds that by not using the potty she doesn’t get any of her favourite food, she will soon start using the potty again. This is negative reinforcement.