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Reinforcement and Punishment

Learning is one of the major features of the behavior of humans and other animals. It is a process by which activities become more and more elaborate as they build on simpler ones. Psychologists think of learning as changes in behavior that depend on at least some degree of practice.

For learning to occur, a particular #pattern of behavior# must somehow be produced and maintained. Educators therefore stress the role of interest or motivation in learning.

One feature of learning is that it lasts. Long-forgotten skills often survive so that it is easier to re-learn them than it was to learn them in the first place. Whether learning happens at all and whether it lasts seems to depend upon reward or reinforcement.

Behavior that is followed by praise or success increases in strength, while unrewarded behavior tends to fade out. Although we usually think of rewards as pleasurable events, some things promote learning without our being aware of them and are better called reinforcers. For example, a parent taking even momentary interest in a child's activity is likely to reinforce that activity, even though the interest is not obviously pleasurable or rewarding for the child.

Imitation is a potent force in starting behavior, but the behavior is likely to be short-lived without reinforcement. The same applies to observation; people who simply observe others learning may improve their own performance, but the improvement is often only temporary unless reinforced. The withdrawal of the reinforcer during learning usually weakens the behavior.

Unlike reinforcement, which is used to strengthen behavior, punishment is designed to weaken it. The exact way in which punishment operates is not yet understood. Rather than directly weakening the behavior in question, it may produce different behavior which competes with the original behavior. The new behavior can then be reinforced.

Less effectively, punishment may simply suppress undesirable behavior temporarily. It is clear that. both punishment and reinforcement have a weaker effect if they are delayed. There is also evidence that punishment can lead to disturbed behavior, especially when associated with such basic activities as eating. For example, cats given electric shocks while feeding in their cages soon refuse to eat altogether, even in completely different surroundings.

Another aspect of punishment is the fact that its stopping can act as a reinforcer. Some children, for instance, go through periods of banging their heads against the wall. One explanation of this behavior is that the pleasurable effect of the punishment stopping is stronger than the pain experienced when the punishment starts. In other words, the child may bang his head because it feels so good when he stops.

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