Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Thursday, February 4, 2016


Remember that little red box for which we dragged our parents to McDonald's?

McDonald's, the fast-food giant has been attracting kids to buy burgers and fries since 1977. How do they do this? Long ago, they came up with a clever marketing strategy whereby they used the technique of positive reinforcement. They introduced a kid's meal box and called it the "Happy Meal". In that meal box was a little surprise! They put toys of characters from existing TV shows and cartoons, which would obviously attract children to buy their products.

B. F. Skinner (1938) developed the theory of operant conditioning, He believed that a behaviour followed by reinforcement would have more chances of reoccurence. On the other hand, a behaviour followed by punishment or extinction is less likely to reoccur. His theory was based on the belief that behaviour is affected by its consequences. Thus, it can be said that operant conditioning is a method of learning by creating an association between a particular behaviour and its consequence. The consequence can either be positive or negative. However, it requires an immediate reaction to a given stimulus.

To prove this, Skinner conducted an experiment. He placed a hungry rat in a box called the "Skinner box". While moving around, the rat would accidentally press the lever (operant/behaviour) on the box. The consequence of this behaviour was the release of a food pellet (positive reinforcement) into the box. Soon, the rat learnt to press the lever whenever it wanted food. This is known as positive reinforcement, which increases the probability of the behaviour. However, by continually pressing the lever, the rat would not get food. This leads to the behaviour becoming extinguished. Thus, a behaviour no longer followed by the reinforcing stimulus decreases the probability of that behaviour occurring again in the future (Skinner, 1938).

Table showing how an interval between the stimulus and reinforcement can lead to a decline in a particular behaviour.

This is exactly what McDonald's did. They used the gift in their "Happy Meal" as a positive reinforcement in order to attract kids to buy their burgers. Children forced their parents to buy them a "Happy Meal" and got the surprise gift immediately. There was no interval between the purchase of the meal and getting the gift. Soon, children learnt this behaviour (of buying the Happy Meal) and started associating it with the gift (positive reinforcement). This led to a drastic increase in their sales.


Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behaviour of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

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