Posts Tagged ‘operant behavior’

The Psychology of Morality: Religion vs Atheism

January 20, 2012

The Psychology of Morality: Religion vs Atheism

There are clear reasons why secular-based moral behavior is likely to be weaker than religiously based moral behavior.

Psychologists know, and generally teach their students that immediate consequences (reinforcement and punishment) most powerfully influence behavior. However, Dr. Richard Malott (A professor of psychology at Western Michigan University) has made a special exception to that rule for humans who have mastered the use of language and who can well experience, read about and hear about the past, present. Humans can also imagine, or be informed of future probable events, and they can estimate the size and impact of those consequences for themselves and others.

Professor Malott observes (and so can you), that immediate consequences that are small and not certain are not so likely to influence our behavior. Familiar examples of this weak control would be wearing a seat belt to avoid injury in case of an automobile collision, exercising regularly to avoid a host of possible health difficulties, or brushing our teeth three times a day to avoid cavities, etc..

The control of our behavior is much more powerful when consequences that are delayed, are also very large and very certain. We would be unlikely to attempt to fly to airplane to a destination if we did not know, for certain, that we had enough fuel to arrive safely. A mariner would most likely avoid voyaging in the direction of a developing hurricane.

Of course immediate, large, and very certain consequences control our behavior best. Humans normally avoid stepping in front of a speeding automobile, walking of cliffs, and petting rattle snakes.

But more to the point, for those who believe in God, both immediate cognitive-emotional (guilty thoughts and feelings), social (social disapproval) consequences;  and delayed spiritual consequences (Heaven or Hell) related to moral and immoral behavior can be very big, and very certain .

For non believers, there are no spiritual consequences. Furthermore secular social consequences are often small, delayed, and improbable for religiously based moral prescriptions (tell the truth, treat others kindly, don’t steal, etc.).

On the other hand immoral behavior earns relatively immediate, large, and certain physiological reinforcement (pornography and sex = novel stimulation and orgasm, ingestion of drugs and alcohol = reduced anxiety and rewarding changes in states of consciousness, Gambling and violence = physiological excitement and dominance). Furthermore, individuals  will easily find social contexts in which to behave in immoral ways and gain positive reinforcement from others.

To the believer, “the wages of sin is death”. To the secularist humanist, all too often, the wages of sin are more immediate, larger and more certain reinforcement.


V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.,  1/20/12

Our Operant Behavior

April 21, 2010

Our Operant Behavior

In some ways operant behaviors are the most important of all of our behaviors. We will therefore discuss operant behavior first. A good general way to identify which of our many behaviors is operant is to identify its physiological roots. Operant behavior is influenced by our central nervous system (our brain and spinal chord) and it is executed by thinking and/or by moving. This may sound simple, but of course, it is not. We use movement to talk, write, send email, to make and rear children, and to make war, etc. Movements require the use our skeletal (striped) muscles, which involves so much of our operant behavior.

The Simple Contingency
A simple contingency (con-tin-gin-see) only specifies that one thing must happen (a specific behavior) before another thing happens (a consequence). It includes only a behavior and a consequence.

So, for example, if you want the door to open, you must turn the knob and pull or push. If  you want a home loan you must select a mortgage company and make-out an application. The door is likely to open and the loan likely to be granted, contingent upon your doing the appropriate behavior. Similarly, a child may learn to make a polite request because that gets him what he wants. Or, a child may learn to throw a temper tantrum because that gets him what he wants.

A more complicated contingency involves three separate things. This is called the three-term-contingency and it involves 1. the situation or events that happen before a behavior, 2. the behavior, and 2. the consequence. Operant behavior takes place in the real world in countless fluid ways. But all operant behavior can easily be seen in this before, behavior, and after context. From birth to death we are immersed in a universe of three-term-contingencies. Again, the three parts to the world of our operant thoughts and actions are.

1. The stimuli or cues from our environment that precede our     actions.

2. Our specific behaviors or actions in the presence of those stimuli or cues.

3. The consequences of our actions that may strengthen or weaken the probability that we will do those actions again in the future.

Human operant behavior changes as its physical and social environment changes and as the consequences of behavior change. We should not miss the fact that normally the most skilled sailors live by the sea, the best trackers and hunters live in the forest, and the best mountain climbers live in the mountains. When people in these environments behave effectively they are rewarded: they eat well and prosper. If they fail to do so, they may perish.

It took a detailed scientific analysis, based upon E. L. Thorndike’s (1987) Law of Effect, to understand and appreciate how the environment shapes our behavior into complex bundles of actions that are both common among most everyone and also those that are unique to each of us. The law of effect relates to operant behavior and, as you may recall, it simply states that consequences control operant behavior.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.   4/21/10

Two Basic Kinds of Behavior

April 20, 2010

Two Basic Kinds of Behavior

There are only two kinds of behavior in humans and other animals.

One kind of behavior is called Operant Behavior because it “operates”, or acts, upon the environment. Most important, operant behavior is controlled by its consequences. Consequences are said to “control” our behavior because they increase (strengthen) or decrease (weaken) the future frequency of the behaviors they follow.

Consequences influence our operant behavior probabilistically, but not absolutely. For example, a child who is praised for helping with a chore, is more likely to help others in the future. A child who is allowed to push another child down and take their toy, is more likely to be aggressive to others in the future.

The only other kind of behavior is Respondent Behavior. The word respondent means that these behaviors are reflexive responses to specific stimuli. Common examples of our respondent behavior are being startled by a loud noise, snapping our hand away from a hot flame, or salivating when we put food in our mouths.

As you will see, these two apparently simple kinds of behavior, and the ways they can be learned, are of huge importance to the lives of fellow citizens and to our socioculture.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.       4/20/10

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