Operant Conditioning in Behavior Modification of Eating Disorders

Behavior modification has been a well-used and often theorized model to instill appropriate behaviors and to change inappropriate behaviors. Pavlov introduced the psychology field to classical conditioning, which teaches a behavior. But it was B. F. Skinner who introduced the concept of operant conditioning. Since its first introduction operant conditioning has been used to not only teach positive actions and behaviors such as rewarding students, but is also known to have changed bad behaviors including a variety of addictions.

What is Operant Conditioning
There are many definitions associated with the term operant conditioning but in essence they all follow the idea that it is a modification of a behavior in which a desired behavior or increasingly closer appreciations to the behavior are influenced by rewards and punishments (operant behavior, 2009 MCLI, 1999). While the given definition is focusing on the modification of behavior in a positive way, the fact remains that this same reasoning is used when a person learns an inappropriate or criminal behavior. The person must be motivated and invested in the need to modify the behavior in both the positive and negative way (Langthorne, McGill, OReilly, 2007). There is also ideas in regards to the use of operant conditioning that link it with Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) when trying to modify appropriate behavior, however, the results are still inconclusive to if this combination works well or not.

In the article by Frisher and Beckett (2006) they explain the concept of operant condition in a negative way with the example of a drug user. The first scenario is when a person is beginning to use and is around more experienced users. The urge to be part of the group can influence the increased behavior of drug use. They state, if drug use helps a person to escape from negative states then again the probability of drug using behavior will increase. Their reasoning is that if someone has to chose between different options, the normal person would chose the option that is the most instantaneously gratifying, such as the use of drugs in comparison to earning money at work. The baseline of the theory is that the reinforcers of the gratifying behavior will be used in learning the given behavior, whether appropriate or not.

Reinforcers, Reinforcements and Punishments
There are three types of actions and events that are used in operant conditioning.  The first are the reinforcers are the actions that reinforce the behavior causing the behavior to be recurring in the future.  Along with reinforcers are the reinforcements that use the reinforcers to instill the behavior for future use. Then the third is the punishments that are used to decrease the behavior whether decreasing an appropriate behavior for an inappropriate behavior or vice versa.  Within each of these categories psychologists have found that the actions can be positive or negative depending on the desired outcome (Barker, Krieder, Peissig, Sokoloff,  Stansfield, n.d MCLI, 1999)
Reinforcers are the actions that are more likely to occur because of the gratifying responses that follow the act.  Reinforcers can be both positive and negative.  Positive reinforcers is the likelihood of an action recurring in the same circumstances, while the negative reinforce is the likelihood that an action will recur if the negative influences are taken away.

The reinforcement is the action that occurs after the reinforcer that increases the likelihood that the action will recur.  A positive reinforcement is the positive stimulus that occurs after the reinforce action (Barker et al, n.d. MCLI, 1999 positive reinforcement 2009).  A negative reinforcement is the removal of the negative stimulus after the reinforce action.

Punishments are the consequences that occur after the reinforce action that decreases the probability of the action recurring.  Positive punishment is the occurrence of a negative stimulus after the inappropriate behavior (Barker et al, n.d. MCLI 1999).  A negative punishment is the removal of a positive reinforcement after an inappropriate behavior.

Operant conditioning can be used in both positive and negative ways.  The fact is that the use of positive reinforcers and reinforcements are more likely to succeed in behavior modification than negative punishments.  The normal human loves to hear praise and be considered a good citizen or student.  The people who only receive negative feedback fall into negative actions and in some cases are conditioned to act in an adverse manner due to their negative conditioning.  To ensure the student, patient, or person is learning the correct and appropriate behavior then the use of the positive reinforcements is required.  Operant conditioning is still being studied, and still being used in many types of addictions and those that use positive reinforcements are more successful and the behaviors are usually modified more quickly.

Leslie is 16 years old and currently weighs 93 pounds.  All through middle school, Leslie was short and chubby.  When she was at the mall trying on bathing suits the summer before high school she was debased in public by acquaintances from school telling her she looked like a beached whale.  From that day on Leslie has eaten less and less and has lost a lot of weight.  As stated she is 93 pounds and still wants to lose more.  She is only eating 3 crackers and a small cube of cheese a day.  Her parents are afraid of what is happening. They consult a therapist and get an idea of how they can reverse the actions through operant conditioning and the use of positive reinforcements.


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