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Friday, August 9, 2013

Operant Conditioning

This article first appeared in the magazine, Singapore's Child.

Most people know about the famous experiment done by Pavlov in 1901. Pavlov rang a bell and then fed the dog. Very soon, the dog associated the sound of the bell with food. It would salivate at the mere sound of the bell, even if not given food. Following in Pavlov’s footsteps, another less famous and highly unethical experiment was carried out on a baby of 8 months. The researcher, John B. Watson placed the baby on a mat atop a table. A white rat was placed on the same table. Naturally, the baby reached out to play with the rat. Whenever the baby touched the rat, the researcher made a deafening sound. This sound frightened the baby so much, that it began to cry.

These actions were repeated several times.

Eventually, the baby demonstrated a stress response at the mere sight of the white rat, even without the deafening sound.

Both these experiments taught the field of human motivation about Operant Conditioning. It is possible to condition people to dislike neutral things, using negative operant conditioning techniques. It is even possible to condition them to like unpleasant things, using positive operant conditioning techniques. I have successfully used positive operant conditioning techniques to get my son to like reading and love exam time. I have taught mothers to use positive operant conditioning techniques to get their children to like memorizing and reciting Chinese compositions. Indeed, this same operant conditioning technique is what helped my husband decide that he likes coming home early from work.

There is only one activity more tedious for Singaporean children than memorizing and reciting a Chinese composition. It is to memorize and recite a Chinese composition that is 4 years above the child’s current reading level. Yet, I know a young girl, aged 7, who went from hating to loving the activity so much that she gets upset if her mother forgets to do recitation work with her. How did we (her mother and I) achieve this? Through positive operant conditioning, we succeeded at infusing a hated task with the positivity generated by something else.

In the case of my son, who hated to read, I conditioned his attitude towards reading by pairing reading with the exhilarating experience of shopping and happy-hug-alone-with-mommy time. We made trips down to the bookstore where he sat on my lap and we read to each other. Don’t underestimate the well-being a child feels by merely being able to sit on Mom’s lap. We carted home books that he chose without coercion from me, and he thrilled to the joy of owning new possessions. We always went for ice-cream afterwards. Till today, my son associates books and bookstores with warmth, cosiness, the joy of buying new things and the creamy goodness of Haagen Daaz ice cream.

In the case of the 7 year old little girl, who hated Chinese recitation, her mother conditioned her attitude by pairing the memorization-recitation process with happy-hug-alone-with-mommy time every Saturday morning. This little one is a middle child of three children hungry for Mom’s attention. Her mother works full-time. Getting one hour of undivided Mom’s attention every weekend was like Winnie the Pooh reveling in a new pot of honey every Saturday morning. These feelings of well-being infused the tedious task of memorization-recitation with pleasantness. As a result, the little girl very much enjoys memorizing and reciting Chinese compositions.

Think about it for a while. There are teenagers who willingly memorize K-Pop songs, not knowing a single word of Korean. Let’s stop to examine what motivates them to work hard at such a tedious task. There are groovy dance moves and catchy music. There are pretty girls and beautiful dresses. There are drum beats and disco lights. All this multi-media stimuli combine to raise the heart beat. This make our teens feel vibrant and alive. Now, take away all that multi-media stimuli and ask your teen to memorize the same piece of text in an unknown language, printed on paper. Meanwhile, you yell at her every time she gets a small syllable wrong. You would be effectuating Negative Operant Conditioning instead. It won’t take long for your teen to shudder at K-Pop.

It is useful for parents to be aware of both Positive and Negative Operant Conditioning. This ensures that you avoid unknowingly performing Negative Operant Conditioning on your child. In a recent case I examined, a parent confided that her 5 year old hated writing. Upon further diagnosis, I found that this parent was stressed by what she knew were the high demands of Primary 1. She loved her son and did not want his self-esteem to suffer unduly in Primary 1 as the class dunce. The fear that this parent felt translated into emotional contagion that infused a neutral writing task with negativity every night. No wonder her child ran away at the sight of a pencil! The parent was engaging in highly effective Negative Operant Conditioning without knowing it!

How many of us are skilled at Negative Operant Conditioning, without knowing it? How many of us successfully condition our children to hate schoolwork just by being anxious and jumpy?

I advised that the parent calm down and get rid of her own fear. In getting rid of her own fear, her interactions with her son during the writing task would be less tense. However, controlling fear is easier said than done. Clearly, the parent herself associated writing with school stress. Therefore, I next advised that they begin to practice butt-writing instead of hand-writing. Since the parent had never before done butt-writing, she had no prior negative associations. This made butt-writing a neutral task in the parent’s psyche. As long as it was butt-writing and not hand-writing, the parent’s psyche no longer associated writing with school stress. It became easier to control parental fear vis-à-vis her writing and school stress. Next, butt-writing has an almost buffoon-like and slapstick quality. You stick your child’s butt into the tray of poster paint and clear a large expanse of floor (that won’t absorb stains) for him to shuffle his butt around on. It lends itself to tumbles and laughter. All this gets the heartbeat up and infuses the task of writing with positivity. After that, one might progress to nose-writing. When the child is familiar with the alphabet and enjoys forming letters, then hand-writing is a natural step forwards. By then, the act of writing would have undergone sufficient Positive Operant Conditioning.

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