Out of Thin Air?

Ever think about where operant behavior comes from? What is it before that first reinforcer occurs? In speaking of the origins of operant behavior, Skinner famously observed that “[o]perant conditioning shapes behavior as a sculptor shapes a lump of clay. Although at some point the sculptor seems to have produced an entirely novel object, we can always follow the process back to the original undifferentiated lump…” (Science and Human Behavior, p. 91). Shaping gets us from the lump to the final operant response, but where does that original undifferentiated lump come from? Does it come from thin air? Of course not. As we know from that famous song in the old movie The Sound of Music, “nothing comes from nothing, nothing never could.” Scientists have speculated about the sources of operant behavior. Four such sources are described below.

Shaping ClayThe lump may be operant behavior maintained by some other reinforcer that is or is not immediately identifiable and is distinct from both the response in question that is being established and its associated reinforcer. Closely related to this is the possibility that the lump could be a part of another operant class that is undergoing extinction. The undifferentiated lump also may be “spillover” from some operant response reinforced in another context or in other ways. This spillover sometimes is labeled response generalization. Whenever an operant response is reinforced, similar responses that don’t quite exceed the threshold necessary for them to be reinforced may occur. These responses are not technically operant responses because they are not reinforced, but they might be available to form a new or another operant class if reinforcement is now made dependent on their occurrence.

Creating a VesselIn a related way, the lump may consist of responses either elicited by an unconditional stimulus, which is reflexive responses or responses that are elicited by stimuli paired with the unconditional stimulus. A well-known technique for establishing key pecking by pigeons, for example, is something called autoshaping. It occurs when the light behind a pigeon’s response key is turned on a few seconds before food is delivered independently of responding. After a few pairings, the pigeon pecks the key. The resulting response is technically a conditional response to a conditional stimulus (the light), but it is easily converted to an operant response by delivering food as soon as it is elicited, rather than delivering food at the end of the light-on period. Undifferentiated lumps also can be goaded into occurring by different schedules of reinforcement that develop schedule-induced behavior. Many reinforcement schedules have built into them periods of nonreinforcement. After a reinforcer is delivered on a fixed-interval schedule, the probability of a response being reinforced is zero until the next FI reinforcer is scheduled. Particularly during the early part of this period of nonreinforcement, when the likelihood of a reinforcer is zero (because the FI is just beginning and reinforcement can’t occur until the interval is over), they engage in other forms of behavior that is both stereotyped and frequent. This schedule-induced behavior can be shaped into new operant responses if reinforced.

Finished VesselThe above are just four ways that different environments might give rise to undifferentiated behavior on which reinforcement can operate through shaping to produce totally new forms of behavior. The lump doesn’t come out of thin air. It comes about as a result of other, operant and nonoperant, contingencies. These may be ontogenic, that is, part of the organism’s individual history, in the above three examples, or part of the organism’s biological inheritance, or phylogeny.




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