What is Instrumental Theory of Learning?

behaviorist J.B. Watson

The instrumental theory of learning, also called operant conditioning was given by the American Psychologist B.F. Skinner, popularly known as the father of operant conditioning.

B.F. Skinner was a behaviorist who claimed that all human behavior was the result of conditioning. Where behaviorist J.B. Watson is known for classical conditioning as a type of learning and is known as the founder of behaviorism,  B.F. Skinner came out with operant conditioning as the type of learning.

In this article, we will discuss in detail the instrumental theory of learning.

Instrumental Theory of Learning

 Instrumental Conditioning theory of learning is nothing but a mechanism that involves changes in human behavior as an outcome of an important event or a stimulus.

behaviorist J.B. Watson

If that event or stimulus is followed by behavior that produces favorable or positive consequences, the probability that such behavior would be repeated in the future increases.

Similarly, if an event or a stimulus is followed by behavior that results in unfavorable or negative outcomes, then the likelihood of such behaviors being repeated in the future decreases.

This is also known as Skinner’s theory of instrumental conditioning. Thus, as per the instrumental conditioning theory, the instrumental learning theory is a process that leads to operant behavior. As per skinner, there exist two types of behaviors. These include respondent and operant behaviors.

Respondent Behavior

Respondent behavior is the immediate or spontaneous response that is the outcome of an individual being exposed to a stimulus or an event. For example, shutting your eyes when the wind blows. Basically, these are automatic or reflexive actions that the surrounding environment forces on us.

Operant Behavior

Operant Behavior, on the other hand, is a response or behavior that is generated by individuals and is not evoked by the surrounding environment. Thus, instead of the environment acting on us, it is we the individuals who act upon the environment.

Such behaviors may include reading, writing, singing, talking, walking, etc.

Thus, according to B.F. Skinner, human beings learn as a result of the outcomes of their behaviors in response to stimulus events. Thus, the behaviors that result in rewards are repeated and learned. Similarly, behaviors that result in punishments are least likely to be repeated and are avoided.

Examples of Instrumental Theory of Learning

To understand how instrumental theory of learning applies to our day-to-day functioning, let’s take some examples.

  • Suppose you want your child to learn the habit of brushing his teeth before hitting the bed at night. Now, to make him learn such a habit, you can reward him each time your child brushes his teeth at night. For instance, you may read him his favorite bedtime time stories for extra time or give him some more time to play with his friends the following day.
  •  The man is fined heavily by the police since he breaks the traffic rules. Therefore, to save himself from paying these heavy fines, he’s least likely to break the traffic rules in the future.
  • Say your child messes the room up while playing and doesn’t have the habit of cleaning the room. Now to help him develop the habit of cleaning the room, you tell him that you’ll cut down on his playtime with friends if he doesn’t clean the room.
  • Say your child argues and misbehaves with you, Now to teach him not to behave in such a way in the future, you stop talking to him. This way, he would avoid misbehaving wit you for he know that this will upset you and wil result in you not talking to him.

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