Thursday, December 13, 2012

What Is Operant Conditioning? (And How Does It Explain Driving Dogs?)

In one sense, it is incredibly impressive that three dogs in New Zealand have learned – in a fairly rudimentary way – to drive a car. They sit in the driver’s seat, shift into gear, operate the steering wheel, and step on the accelerator. Those deserving the true accolades however are not the dogs, but the human trainers for their impressive patience and determination. The training that led man’s best friend to operate a car is no different from the kind of training behind the bird shows found at zoos all over the world, or the dolphin, killer whale, seal, or sea lion displays you might see at Sea World. It’s the same kind of training that scientists use to probe the emotional and cognitive lives of rats, mice, and the other critters that populate their laboratories. At the end of the day, it all comes down to a form of learning first described by Edward L. Thorndike at the beginning of the 1900s, which was later expanded and popularized by B.F. Skinner and taught to every student of Introductory Psychology: operant conditioning. more

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