As a newbie to the world of blogging, I find that I must first learn how to communicate to you in this foreign yet exciting technological form of discourse. The concept of learning, however, is something quite familiar to not only me, but to almost all individuals. Learning is what allows an individual to survive, what allows a species to continue. Learning comes in many different shapes, sizes and forms, and influences our lives from the very day we are born. The topic of my ensuing posts will revolve around one specific type of learning: instrumental conditioning. Furthermore, I focus on the effects of instrumental conditioning on child rearing.
Instrumental behavior, the end product of instrumental learning, is set apart from the effects of habituation, sensitization, and classical conditioning in the fact that it is goal-directed. This means that the behavior “occurs because it was previously instrumental in producing certain consequences” (Domjan 144). In instrumental learning, the entity being learned is the “association between the response and the stimuli present at the time of the response” (Domjan 146). Instrumental learning procedures fall under two criterion with two levels each, whether the response-outcome contingency is positive or negative and if the procedure increases or decreases a specific response rate. Table 5.1 illustrates the properties of the four instrumental conditioning procedures.
Two articles, one by Weiher and Harman and the other by Azrin, Sneed, and Foxx, analyze the effects of instrumental conditioning procedures on children behavior.
Let’s start with Azrin, Sneed, and Foxx. Their study on enuretic children, children who lacked the ability to control their urination, was prompted by the limitations of the urine-alarm technique. The Urine-Alarm technique utilizes a loud buzzing sound upon urination detected by a bed pad. However, this procedure requires weeks, even months, to reduce urination in bed and also has a high relapse rate. Azrin et al. thus propose the Dry-Bed procedure where, when an accident occurs, the individual “receives verbal disapproval, [is] required to change the bed sheets, and [is] required to practice arising from the bed to walk to the toilet” (Azrin et al. 147). At the bathroom, the child is also asked if he or she can inhibit urination for another hour. If the child responds with a yes and does so successfully, praise is administered. If the child responds with a no, he or she is persuaded to inhibit urination for a few minutes, and if done successfully, praise is administered and the child is allowed to urinate. The child again receives praise for correct toileting after urination. At all times after correct urination, the child is praised for having kept his sheets dry upon arriving at his bed and feeling his sheets. The next day, praise is administered again and is continued during multiple times throughout the entire day. Azrin et at. find that this Dry-Bed technique is much quicker in eliminating enuresis and long lasting than the Urine-Alarm technique.
My question is why is the Dry-Bed technique more immediate and effective than the Urine-Alarm technique? Although these issues are not discussed in the article itself, I hypothesize that this is due to the fact that the Urine-Alarm technique implements punishment, while the Dry-Bed technique implements punishment but more so positive reinforcement. The Dry-Bed technique does punish the individual by disturbing sleep, forcing him or her to change their bed and walk to the bathroom, however, it focuses mainly on the praise upon control of urination. Is there something about positive reinforcement that makes a technique better than one utilizing punishment? To try and figure out what is going on, the second article by Weiher and Harman must be discussed.
Weiher’s and Harman’s studies arise from the problem of self-injurious behavior (SIB) in the retarded child. Like the Urine-Alarm technique, the limitations of a less effective technique for SIB prompted their investigation. Employment of an aversive stimulus via a mild electric shock initially reduces the amount of SIB. However, when the shock is no longer administered, SIB returns. In addition, the suppression of SIB is only successful in selective environments and in the presence of specific therapists. Therefore, Weiher and Harman approached the problem a different way. They utilize omission training where if the child engages in SIB, the therapist withholds a reward, in this case, half a teaspoon of applesauce. When the child retains from exhibiting SIB for a certain amount of time, he or she is given the desired applesauce. The time required to withhold from SIB is then increased and the same procedure is followed until SIB is eliminated. This technique proves to be just as rapid as the electric shock technique, however, it produces a greater durability in the sense that it is long lasting and applies to a broad range of environments.
Just as the Azrin et al. study found, a positive reinforcement technique proved to be more successful in the elimination of an unwanted behavior. Weiher and Harman’s study may hold the answer. It is important to note that SIB is a “learned, operant, or instrumental social behavior” where the “strength of which bears a functional relationship to the presentation and withdrawal of social reinforcement” (Weiher and Harman 262). Therefore, the child is using the behavior as a means to produce a certain outcome. If another behavior can replace this to produce an even more desirable outcome, then the initial behavior can be reduced, maybe even eliminated. The “other responding, which actively [competes] with resumption of the response under focus of response elimination, [is] maintained by omission reinforcement” and thus becomes the predominant behavior. The reinforcement by the apple sauce of the other behavior, which is lack of SIB, allows the SIB behavior to be surpressed. The subject learns “not to emit SIB and to emit other, more appropriate behaviors as a means of gaining attention” via this positive reinforcement (Weiher and Harman 267). Both articles then exhibit the effects of Differential Reinforcement of Other Behavior (DRO), which may explain the efficiency and durability of the Dry-Bed technique and the Apple-Sauce technique. These instrumental conditioning procedures involve a positive reinforcer, the praise or the apple sauce, when the individual exhibits the opposite other behavior, the lack of bed-wetting or lack of SIB behavior. This other behavior then seems to replace the opposite undesired behavior which is why these techniques are so successful.
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It should be mentioned that we cannot directly conclude that the reinforcement procedure is solely responsible for the success of the procedures discussed. For example, the Dy-Bed technique not only involves the reinforcement of the other behavior, but also differs on the level of punishment utilized when compared to the Buzzer-technique. For the Buzzer-technique, the child is merely woken by the buzzer whenever he or she urinates in bed. Immediately after, the child may fall back to sleep with little to no disturbance. For the Dry-Bed technique, the child is woken up by an actual person, is forced to take off the dirty sheets and replace them with clean sheets, and is taken to the bathroom where they must stay until correct urination is performed. The child cannot go back to sleep as he or she must perform these actions, which the parent or experimentor makes sure of. It is arguable that being woken up briefly is less intense than being woken up and forced to function in such a manner. Therefore, two variables may be responsible for the greater success of the Dry-Bed technique. To distinguish which variable elicits this increase in efficiency, future research can be conducted such that the praise element is eliminated. If the child still shows a greater response to the Dry-Bed technique, then that data may support the hypothesis that the increase in success of the technique is due to the greater intensity of punishment. Researchers can also alter the Dry-Bed technique so that the child is awaken by the buzzer only (identical to the Buzzer-technique), but the praise is still administered when correct inhibition of urination is performed. If the child still shows a greater response to the Dry-Bed technique, then that data may support the hypothesis that the increase in success of the technique is due to the DRO reinforcement aspect.
Azrin, N. H., Sneed, T. J., & Foxx, R. M. (1974). Dry-bed training: rapid elimination of childhood enuresis. Behavior Research Therapy, 12(3), 147-156.
Domjan, M. (2006). Principles of learning and behavior. Belmon, CA: Wadsworth.
Weiher, R. G., & Harman, R. E. (1975). The use of omission training to reduce self-injurious behavior in a retarded child. Behavior Therapy, 6(2), 261-268.