Ever since the concept of operant conditioning presented to the discipline of Psychology, it has been praised, applied and criticized equally in fervor. Currently, both psychologists and economists have interests in its applications. The concepts of operant conditioning are applied in many fields such as education, business organizations, communities, professional bodies, market, international relations and even in robotics. One domain that binds both, economics and operant conditioning is consumer demand (Domjan, M. 2009). In Economics, the consumer demand is a function of price of the good and the quantity purchased. The elasticity of demand or variability of the demand is the degree of change in consumption with respect to change in price. The behavioral economists are attempting to explain the demand elasticity with the help of the principles of the operant conditioning.
Application of Operant conditioning
There are many principles that are associated with operant conditioning. Some of the prominent concepts are reinforcement, punishment, reward, extinction, schedules of reinforcement, generalization, etc. The other external factors affecting the operant behavior are immediacy, size of the reinforcement, deprivation/ satiation, and contingency. One article by Choliz, M (2010) uses the principles of operant conditioning to study the behavior of electronic gamblers. Choliz state that ever since the beginning of humanity, man has an urge to control and predict chance and beneﬁt from it. This urge seems to be the underlying basis of operant condition. The article points out that the electronic games have certain physical characteristics that make them attractive and induce the players to play more, leading to pathological behaviors classified under DSM-IV-TR for pathological gambling.
The experience of playing itself seems to be a reinforcer for the pathological gamblers. A plausible explanation for this phenomenon is that the slot machines (gambling machine) have structural characteristics (Parke and Grifﬁths 2006) that conforms to the operant conditioning context. There are many characteristics to the slot machine that resembles the context of real operant conditioning situation (Choliz, 2010). One characteristic is the slot machines operate typically in a variable-ratio schedule of reinforcement (Turner and Horbay 2004). The gambler tends to think that the prize is directly proportional to the amount of money deposited in the machine. The gambler believes that the more money he/she stakes into the machine, the greater the chances of winning the prize. Nevertheless, early wins (Haw 2008) (positive reinforcement) and the random wins in the gambling cycle prevent extinction and promote spontaneous recovery (Weatherly et al. 2004).
The taste of win, however small it may be, reinforces the pathological gambler to attempt more. Another important principle of operant conditioning that is in action is that the slot machines function in such a way that the actions the gambler, pushing buttons and pulling levers, create the illusion of control. Choliz (2010) concludes that ‘‘active’’ games usually produce higher rates of behavior than the ‘‘passive’’ ones, the fundamental principle of operant condition is active here. The slot machines reward the gambler immediately, in the form of coins. Immediacy of reinforcement is one of the most relevant reinforcer for maintaining the pathological gambler’s tendency to try eternally for the prize (Lieberman et al. 1979). In the study Choliz (2010) proves that delayed reinforcement affect the gamblers behavior that they tend to play lesser number of games.
Comments on the article
The article has two hypotheses, one is that the addiction to playing is due to the attractive charecterisitcs of the slot machines, and the other is that immediacy of rewards prompts the player to play more. From the description of the hypotheses it is clear that the researcher is not interested in the psychopathology of the gamblers, but interested in the operant variables. The results obtained accepts the alternate hypothsis, proposed by the researcher and has potential to be applied in the field of addiction. The information that the delayed reward significantly reduces the number of games played by the pathological gamblers is very critical in making policies related to gambling as an issue of public health. The article is more of operant conditioning than on the psycho-dynamics of the gambling pathology.
Behavior modification is a systematic application of operant conditioning to change people’s behavior in various contexts. It may be used for clinical purposes, productivity increments, promotion of learning, enhancement of purchase behavior or compliance to rules and norms. In spite of various criticisms and developments in other schools of psychology such as cognitivism, emotional intelligence, etc. the principles of operant conditions are very much active around us.
Domjan, M. (2009). “The Principles of Learning and Behavior.” Wadsworth Publishing Company. 6th Edition. pages 244-249.
Chóliz, M. (2010). “Experimental analysis of the game in pathological gamblers: Effect of the immediacy of the reward in slot machines.” Journal of Gambling Studies, 26(2), 249-56
Parke, J., & Grifﬁths, M. (2006). The psychology of the fruit machine: The role of structural characteristics (Revisited). International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 4(2), 151–179.
Haw, J. (2008). Random-ratio schedules of reinforcement: The role of early wins and unreinforced trials. Journal of Gambling Issues, 21, 56–67.
Turner, N. E., & Horbay, R. (2004, July). How do slot machines and other electronic gambling machines actually work? Electronic Journal of Gambling Issues: eGambling, 11. Retrieved June 2014, http://www.camh.net/egambling/issue11/index.html
Lieberman, D. A., McIntosh, D. C., & Thomas, G. V. (1979). Learning when reward is delayed: A marking hypothesis. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes, 5, 224–242