What can we learn from Pavlov
Most people know the story of Pavlov and his salivating dogs. Ivan Pavlov began his career study physiology. His famous experiment set out to study the digestive system. What he discovered by accident we now call classical conditioning. Pavlov rang a bell before feeding the dogs a meat powder which caused the dogs to salivate. Soon, the dogs began salivating at the bell alone without the presence of the meat powder. I accidently did this to myself in my undergraduate psychology class. I left class one time and went to the vending machine for a Snicker’s bar and Diet Dr. Pepper. Next thing I know I was craving this each time I left class. I carried this tradition after each one of my psychology classes, which at this point in my career was many.
Another researched, B. F. Skinner, expanded on his studies designing experiments to intentionally reinforce or discontinue behaviors. His experiments are referred to as operant conditioning as one is actively operating on the environment to change behaviors.
Some common examples of operant conditioning I see include:
Ever end up in the grocery store with a child screaming for a candy bar and you give in and give it to them? That was positively reinforcing the screaming behavior. That means you added something (the candy bar) to the situation (the screaming). Over time, your child will learn screaming = candy bar. Reinforcement increases the likelihood of a behavior reoccurring.
What about when you child doesn’t clean their room like you asked? Parents will generally ground their children in this scenario. This is removing something (like a phone, TV time, or friends) in hopes the situation (not cleaning the room) is ceased. This is called negative punishment.
When families come to see me in counseling, something has generally gone wrong in their behavior patterns. When your child is throwing a fit in the store, it is embarrassing. You may give them the candy just to save yourself the trouble. Sometimes children will give you such a hard time about being grounded, you just unground them. As I educate parents about this process and they begin to change the patterns, they get frustrated because often the intensity of the behavior increases. Think about it. If you were getting the candy bar, and now you aren’t, might you not throw an even bigger tantrum in hope it works? This is called the extinction burst.
Extinction bursts are hard to work through. My dog used to jump up before going outside. He weighs over 60 pounds and him jumping on me was beginning to hurt me. It took me months before I figured out me leashing him up and taking me out after doing this was perpetuating the problem. As I noticed it, I began getting him to lay down before putting the leash on and going out. When we began the process, it took over 20 minutes to get him to lay down before going out. In a matter of days, he learned laying down was the way to go. Had I caved and taken him out during that time, he may never have learned laying down. Powering through the extinction burst is hard, but once you do, the behavior is gone which we call extinct. It’s important to continue to follow through to ensure the behavior stays extinct.
As a parent, it’s important to keep this in mind when giving punishments to children. Stick with it. It’s going to get worse before it gets better.
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Written by: Kristina Zufall, M.Ed., LPC Intern