Instrumental and Operant Conditioning

Basics of Instrumental and Operant Conditioning

Understanding the Core Concepts of Instrumental and Operant Conditioning

First up – what is conditioning? In psychology, conditioning is a process that attempts to generate specific behavior by controlling variables like rewards and punishments. It sounds complex, but let’s understand it with an easy example.

Imagine this; you’re rewarded with ice cream after you’ve done your homework. The next time you’re assigned homework, you might be more inclined to do it in hopes of getting another reward (the delicious ice cream!).

This is nothing but conditioning. Now let’s get down to its two types; Instrumental and Operant conditioning.

Instrumental Conditioning

Coined by Edward L. Thorndike, instrumental conditioning is all about learning through consequences.

Thorndike’s principle of “law of effect” suggests that if an action leads to a positive outcome (aka reward), we are more likely to repeat it. In contrast, if an action results in a negative outcome (aka punishment), chances are, we might avoid it in the future.

Let’s see an instrumental conditioning example in marketing. Say a clothing brand provides a 50% discount coupon to customers who make purchases above $100. The happy customers, touched by the reward, tend to shop more to get more of those exciting discount coupons. That’s instrumental conditioning at work!

Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning is a concept brought up by B.F. Skinner. Just like instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning also involves a form of reward and punishment. However, the distinction lies in the behavior being voluntary.

Skinner believed that the consequences of these voluntary behaviors drive learning. Positive reinforcement (read: rewards) encourages the repetition of good behavior, while negative reinforcement (read: removing something unpleasant) promotes avoidance of certain behaviors.

If we translate this into a marketing context, consider how store loyalty programs work. When a customer collects a certain amount of points (the voluntary behavior), they can exchange them for a discount or a free product (positive reinforcement). This will encourage further shopping to garner more points, reinforcing this voluntary behavior.

Instrumental Conditioning in Marketing

The Use of Positive Reinforcement

Thorndike and Skinner found out that a behavior might be followed by positive outcomes, which would then strengthen the behavior. This principle is known as positive reinforcement.

In marketing, you might see this tactic used when customers are rewarded for their loyalty. Think of those loyalty cards that accumulate points each time you shop, or special discounts when you refer friends to subscribe. These are rewards given to repeat a purchase behavior.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unwelcome stimulus to encourage a particular behavior. It sounds complicated, so let’s simplify it with an example.

Imagine a scenario where a clothing brand offers free shipping if you buy items above a certain price. Here, the unwelcome stimulus (the shipping fee) is removed to encourage the behavior of purchasing more.

Unveiling the Power of Extinction

In instrumental conditioning, there’s a lesser-known concept called extinction. Extinction refers to the gradual decrease in behavior when the reinforcement is no longer provided.

For marketers, understanding extinction is crucial to maintaining customer behavior. For example, if a coffee chain suddenly stops their ‘buy 10 get one free’ offer, loyal customers might stop showing up. To prevent this, marketers need to carefully manage the decrease or removal of rewards.

Reinforcement Schedules for Better Marketing

When implementing instrumental conditioning, marketers can vary the frequency with which they provide the reinforcement. This is known as a reinforcement schedule.

For example, continuous reinforcement is giving a reward every time the behavior occurs. This could be a coupon given for every purchase at a store.

Intermittent reinforcement, on the other hand, rewards the behavior only at certain times. This could be ‘surprise’ sales or rewards that keep customers on their toes and thus, hooked to the brand.

In the real-life grit of marketing, professionals use both positive and negative reinforcements, along with creative reinforcement schedules to promote desired customer behavior.

The science of instrumental conditioning, thus, becomes an art pursued with passion – where easing customer pain points and showering them with rewards builds brand loyalty.

Visual representation of instrumental conditioning in marketing, showing a customer being rewarded with a loyalty card for their loyalty

Photo by vantaymedia on Unsplash

Operant Conditioning in Marketing

Positive Reinforcement in Marketing

Positive reinforcement is instrumental in marketing as it grants rewards to consumers for a specific action, thereby encouraging the repetition of that action.

A practical example is a loyalty program where buyers earn points for every purchase, redeemable for discounts or free goods. This strategy not only induces repeat purchases but also engenders customer loyalty.

Negative Reinforcement in Marketing

Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, reduces or removes an unfavorable condition to inspire a desirable action. It is not punishment; instead, it’s a strategy to uplift customer satisfaction.

For instance, a company might provide free shipping to customers who spend a certain amount on its products, eliminating the undesirable cost of shipping and prompting larger orders.

The Principle of Extinction in Marketing

In the marketing scenario, extinction refers to the point at which the conditioned response disappears when reinforcement is eliminated or ignored.

For example, if a brand discontinues its rewards program unexpectedly, customers may cease the habit of repeat purchases established during the program’s existence. Therefore, marketers must be very strategic when changing or ending a reinforcement system to reduce the risk of extinction.

Reinforcement Schedules in Marketing

Schedules of reinforcement refer to the frequency at which rewards are offered, which can be either continuous or intermittent. With continuous reinforcement, the rewards come every time the desired behavior occurs. This strategy is excellent for establishing new behaviors.

However, once the behavior becomes regular, an intermittent schedule—rewards given occasionally—might be more effective. They’re less predictable, hence, they keep consumers engaged for an extended period. Sales promotions, like flash sales, often adopt this method, creating an air of excitement and urgency around the product or service.

An image showing the relationship between operant conditioning and marketing strategies.

Photo by campaign_creators on Unsplash

Differences Between Instrumental and Operant Conditioning

We’ve already covered how instrumental conditioning relies heavily on Thorndike’s “law of effect,” which implies that behaviors resulting in favorable outcomes are more likely to be repeated. Conversely, behaviors leading to unfavorable outcomes are less likely to reoccur. Simple enough, right?

Meanwhile, operant conditioning, initially introduced by B.F. Skinner, could be considered as an expanded version of instrumental conditioning. It not only considers the consequence and its following behavior, but also the antecedent – the condition that triggers the behavior. Think of it as adding an extra step prior to the whole response and consequence dynamic.

Both instrumental and operant conditioning employ rewards and punishments in shaping behaviors. However, operant conditioning introduced us to the concept of negative reinforcement and punishment, thereby making it more comprehensive and flexible as a method of behavioral modification.

Negative reinforcement isn’t as grim as it sounds – it simply refers to the removal of unpleasant experiences as a “reward” to strengthen a particular behavior. Now, on the other hand, punishment entails presenting an unfavorable outcome or removing a favorable one to decrease a particular behavior.

For example, let’s say you’re a hamburger restaurant trying to increase your regular burger sales. In an attempt to employ operant conditioning, you introduce a “buy one regular burger, get one free” promotion.

Customers who buy regular burgers (behavior) are rewarded with a free regular burger (consequence). This rewards their behavior, strengthens the likelihood of them buying regular burgers in the future, and ultimately, boosting your regular burger sales.

Image illustrating the concepts of instrumental and operant conditioning in marketing strategies

FAQs on Instrumental and Operant Conditioning

What is Operant Conditioning?

Answer: Operant conditioning, also known as Skinnerian conditioning or instrumental conditioning, is a learning process in behavioral psychology.

It involves modifying behavior through the use of rewards (reinforcements) or punishments.

The basic idea is that behavior followed by a positive outcome is more likely to be repeated, whereas behavior followed by a negative outcome is less likely to be repeated.

What’s the Difference Between Operant and Classical Conditioning?

Answer: Operant conditioning involves learning through the consequences of behavior, whereas classical conditioning involves learning through association.

In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus becomes associated with a meaningful stimulus, eventually taking on its properties. Operant conditioning, in contrast, is about the consequences (rewards or punishments) that follow a behavior.

What are Examples of Operant Conditioning?

Answer: Examples of operant conditioning include giving a child praise (reward) for doing homework (behavior), which increases the likelihood of the child doing homework in the future.

Another example is receiving a speeding ticket (punishment) for driving too fast (behavior), which decreases the likelihood of speeding in the future.

What are Reinforcements and Punishments in Operant Conditioning?

Answer: In operant conditioning, reinforcements are outcomes that strengthen the probability of a behavior. These can be positive (adding something pleasant) or negative (removing something unpleasant).

Punishments, on the other hand, are outcomes that decrease the probability of a behavior and can also be positive (adding something unpleasant) or negative (removing something pleasant).

Further Reading

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