All Big Bang Theory fans will remember:
In Season 3, Episode 3 of the Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper used Operant Conditioning to subtly change Penny’s behaviour to what he considered ‘correct’. He did that by positively reinforcing such behaviours with chocolate. For example, if Penny offered to clean up after dinner or moved off ‘Sheldon’s spot’ on the couch or spoke quietly, she was rewarded with a piece of chocolate.
B.F. Skinner is considered the father of Operant Conditioning – an approach that aimed to understand behaviour by looking at causes of an action and its consequences (Skinner, 1951) It roughly means changing behaviour by using reinforcement, which is presented after the desired response. His work is based on Thorndike’s law of effect (1905). The law states that behaviour which is followed by pleasant consequence is likely to be repeated. Skinner built on this idea by adding the concept of reinforcement. Behaviour that is reinforced (positively or negatively) tends to be repeated and behaviour which is not tends to die-out. In this case, when Penny was given chocolate which served as the positive reinforcer, she was provided a consequence which she found rewarding and pleasant and hence, she was more likely to repeat said actions.
Operant Conditioning can be used in many everyday situations to persuade people to change behaviour, for example, using positive reinforcement when your flat mates take the trash out or clean the kitchen so that they do it every time.
Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.
Skinner, B. F. (1951). How to teach animals. Freeman.