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Chapter 6
Theories of Learning

CHAPTER 6

EFFECTS OF AVERSIVE STIMULI

 

Up to now we have discussed the consequences reinforcement or reward play in learning.

 

In this chapter we will look at the impact of Aversive Stimuli on learning and behavior.

 

First, well examine how people and animals learn to escape and avoid unpleasant situations, then we'll look at the effects of punishment on learning and behavior.

 

And finally we will examine a phenomenon that occurs when people and animals are exposed to aversive stimuli that they can neither avoid or escape.. a phenomenon known as learned helplessness.

 

ESCAPE LEARNING

 

Escape learning is the process of acquiring a response that terminates an aversive stimulus. For example:

 

Rats were placed in one compartment of a two compartment cage and then given electric shocks.  The rats quickly learned to turn a wheel that permitted them to run into the other compartment escaping the aversive shock.

 

Students like the laboratory rats learn various ways to escape unpleasant task or situations in the classroom. (dog ate my homework; I didnt do it, he did)

 

Because escape from aversive stimulus terminates that stimulus, the escape response is negatively reinforced.  In other words, it gets you away or removes you from something.  (Rats make a response that stops an electric shock, or children make a  response that places the blame on someone else are examples of escape learning)

 

AVOIDANCE LEARNING

 

Avoidance learning is a process of learning to stay away from an aversive stimulus altogether. 

 

For avoidance learning to occur, an organism must have some sort of pre-aversive stimulus, a cue or hint signaling the advent of the aversive stimulus.  (Buzzer sounds just before rat is shocked).

 

There are two types of Avoidance learning, Active avoidance learning and Passive avoidance learning.

 

 

Active avoidance learning is simply doing something to prevent an undesirable consequence from occurring.  Studying to prevent getting a poor grade is a good example of active avoidance learning.

 

Passive avoidance learning is just the opposite of active avoidance; it is not doing anything to prevent a consequence from occurring.  For example, people who feel awkward and uncomfortable in social situations tend not to go to parties or other social events.  Likewise, students who have difficulty with mathematics rarely sign up for advance math classes if they can help it.

 

Extinguishing avoidance learning:  Avoidance learning is extremely difficult to extinguish.  The reason for the difficulty is because when an aversive situation loses all sources of unpleasantness, organisms nevertheless, continue to avoid it.  This occurs because the organism never has an opportunity to learn that the situation is no longer aversive.  (math, pg. 97, text).

 

PUNISHMENT

 

There are two types of punishment:

 

Punishment I (positive punishment)

Punishment II (negative punishment)

 

Punishment I (positive punishment):  Involve presenting or administering an action (Spanking, Giving a failing grade) to encourage a desired behavior.

 

Punishment II (negative punishment):  Involve removing or taking away something (losing a privilege, being fined, in which case money is lost) to decrease a behavior or action.

 

Views on the effectiveness of punishment have changed considerably over the past 60 years.  Early research indicted that punishment was a very ineffective means of changing behavior.

 

More recently, however, research evidence has emerged to indicate that punishment can be effective in many situations in changing behavior.

 

DISADVANTAGES OF PUNISHMENT

 

Over the years psychologists have cited several disadvantages associated with the use of punishment:

 

  • A Punished behavior is not eliminated; it is only suppressed.
  • Punishment sometimes leads to an increase in the punished behavior.
  • The response punishment contingency may not be recognized.
  • Punishment often elicits undesirable emotional responses and may lead to escape and avoidance behavior.
  • Punishment may lead to aggression.
  • Punishment does not illustrate correct behavior (it tells you what not to do, but not what should be done).
  • Severe Punishment may cause physical or psychological harm.

 

USING PUNISHMENT IN CLASSROOM SETTINGS

 

The use of punishment as a means of behavior control is widespread in both child rearing and educational practice. One likely reason for the prevalence of punishment as a disciplinary measure is that, because it tends to decrease or eliminate an undesirable behavior fairly quickly.

 

Several forms of punishment are discussed in the text:

 

Time-Out: Involves placing the misbehaving individual in an environment with no reinforcers in other words, in a dull, boring situation.  Often, this time-out environment is a separate room, furnished sparsely or not at all, in which the individual can not interact with others.

 

Response Cost:  Involves the withdrawal of a previously earned reinforcer, a ticket for speeding (resulting in the payment of a fine) and the loss of previously earned privileges are examples.  Response cost has been shown to reduce such misbehaviors as aggression, inappropriate speech, disruptiveness, hyperactivity, and tardiness.

 

Verbal Reprimand: Although some students find teacher attention of nay kind to be reinforcing, most probably regard a verbal reprimand a scolding or admonishment as punishment.

 

Restitution and Overcorrection:  Restitution and overcorrection involve requiring people to take actions that correct the results of their misdeeds.  In restitution, a misbehaving individual must return the environment to the same state of affairs it was in before the misbehavior occurred.  As example, a child who breaks a window must pay for a new one, and a child who makes a mess must clean it up.

 

In the case of restitutional overscorrection, the punished individual must make things better than they were before the inappropriate behavior.  For example, a student who throws food in the lunchroom might be asked to mop the entire lunchroom floor, or the student who offends a classmate might be asked to apologize to the entire class.

 

Positive practice overcorrection:  Involves having an individual repeat an action but this time doing it correctly perhaps in an exaggerated fashion. 

 

 

GUIDELINES FOR USING PUNISHMENT EFFECTIVELY

 

Psychologists and educators have offered numerous suggestions on how to use punishment effectively, many of which decrease the chances of negative side effects.  The guidelines that follow are among those commonly used:

 

  • Punishment must be punishing.  A common punish around many homes is to send one to his or her room.  For some, this is a true punishment if the individual enjoys the company of other family members.  However, others being banished to their room may in fact, be reinforcement, especially if the individual enjoys listening to the radio, straightening their room or reading a book while the punishment is being imposed.

 

  • The punishment must be strong enough to be effective but not overly severe.  Punishment that is too short or mild is not effective.  At the same time, punishment must not be overly severe, or it might lead to such undesirable side effects as resentment, hostility, aggression, or escape behavior.  For example, a college teacher may believe that by giving some students a C, she is punishing those students for their lack of class attendance and poor exam performance.  Yet, a C average is quite acceptable at most institutions, so the student may not be sufficiently punished to change behavior.  The ultimate purpose of administering punishment is to communicate that the limits of acceptable behavior have been exceeded; it should not be so excessive that it undermines the personal relationship between the punisher and the person being punished.

 

 

  • Punishment should be threatened once before it is administered.  Use of the word threaten here means only that people should be warned ahead of time, not that they should be intimidated.  Punishment is most likely to deter behavior when an individual know that the behavior will be punished.  One common mistake that many teachers and parents make is to continue to threaten punishment without ever following up on the threat.  One threat is advisable, but repeated threats are not.

 

  • The behavior to be punished should be described in clear, terms.  Students should understand exactly which behavior is acceptable.  A student who is told, if you disrupt the class again this morning, you will lose your free time, may not understand exactly what the teacher means by disrupt therefore, many students continue to engage in inappropriate classroom behavior.

 

 

  • Punishment should be consistent.  Just as is true for reinforcement, punishment is much more effective when it is a consistent consequence for a particular behavior. When inappropriate behavior is punished only occasionally, the likelihood of that behavior changing is minimized.
  • Whenever possible, punishment should immediately follow the inappropriate behavior.  Again, as with reinforcement, the effectiveness of punishment is reduced dramatically when it is delayed.  The more closely punishment follows a misbehavior, the more effective it will be. Punishment is particularly effective when it is administered as soon as the misbehavior begins.

 

  • An explanation of why the behavior is unacceptable should be given.   A growing body of research indicates that punishment is more effective when reasons why certain behavior cannot e tolerated are given.  For example, when you talk without permission and when you get out of your seat during quiet reading time, you keep other children from getting their work done.

 

  • Some punishments are particularly ineffective and should be avoided.  Among the punishments generally not recommended are physical punishment, psychological punishment, extra class work, and suspension from school.

 

  • Punishment should be used sparingly.  An effective punishment is one that does not need to be administered very often to be effective. 

 

When used properly, punishment is the quickest way of reducing or eliminating unacceptable behaviors.  A punishment that clearly is not suppressing an undesirable behavior very quickly should be replaced by a different consequence.

 

 

LEARNED HELPLESSNESS

 

Imagine that you are a student who is continually failing assignments and exams.  You study, memorize your text word for word and even sleep with your books open over your head hoping that information will sink in.. yet, you still get F after F on exams.  When aversive stimuli are presented repeatedly, and when an organism cannot avoid or escape from them, the organism will eventually give up and passively accept the consequence.  Passively accepting an uncontrollable aversive event is a phenomenon known as learned helplessness.

 

 

SUMMARY

 

Escape learning is the process of learning to terminate an aversive stimulus.  Avoidance learning is the process of learning to avoid an aversive stimulus altogether. 

 

Views on punishment have changed considerably over the past 60 years.  Early researchers found that punishment did little to reduce behavior and cited numerous disadvantages of its use.  More recently, however, some forms of punishment have been found to be effective in decreasing a variety of inappropriate behaviors.  A number of guidelines were presented in the use of punishment to promote its effectiveness.

 

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