No You Cannot Condition my Girlfriend

 

This clip  illustrates some of the first-most principals of behaviorism. Within the clip, there is a short back-and-forth dialog between the characters Lenard and Sheldon; Sheldon whom is preforming a positive reinforcement conditioning experiment on Penny, Lenard’s girlfriend. Penny is the girl next door who spends a lot of time in Sheldon and Lenard’s apartment. Sheldon is a physicist who finds personal interactions pointless and taxing; therefore, he finds Penny’s company to be quite cumbersome and ensues with a resolution.

Although Sheldon’s morality could very well be questioned on this experiment, he demonstrates some of the fundamentals that make up Watson’s and Skinner’s idea of behaviorism.  Behaviorism first started with Watson in the early 1900’s. Watson’s ideas for behaviorism dealt solely with observable behavioral acts that are directly observable. From this Watson further developed his doctrine in pursuit of the objective. A work that is widely known of Watson’s is Baby Albert. Baby Albert was a young baby that Watson had successfully conditioned to fear white rodents, and anything of a similar appearance. Similar to Sheldon, Watson’s method could easily be critiqued for its lack of morality; however, Watson made an incredible find. Watson had determined that emotions and responses of a human can be conditioned.

Due to Watson’s considerable findings in the field of behaviorism, Skinner was then able push the idea of conditioning to an even more impressive level. Positive reinforcement, as referred to in the clip, is often a tactic used in behavior modification to positively increase a desirable behavior. Behavioral modification utilizes the use of desirable objects to control a behavior that is being exhibited by a person and/or group that the experimenter is attempting to alter. In the clip, for example, Sheldon finds a lot of the things that Penny does to be irritating. His solution is to provide her with a positive reinforcement (i.e. chocolate) for whenever she does something right. Sheldon is demonstrating the use of Skinner’s law of acquisition. This law stresses that the strength of the noted behavior will be increased when it is followed by the reinforcement stimulus. Sheldon’s hope in this case, as any scientist, would be that after a consistent stream of reinforcement Penny’s less favorable attributes will be diminished or completely absent.

Although the clip presents an example of a behavioral modification experiment, it’s not necessarily realistic. In the special needs world however, the terms “positive reinforcement” and “behavioral modification” is a highly used tactic and has been considerably successful within the field. For example, consider a child who struggles with ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). Let’s say that this child has a bad habit of screaming, and it is driving the child’s family up a wall! A plan could be developed in order to reduce, or modify this undesired behavior. Similarly with Penny and the chocolate, the child could be rewarded with a piece of candy whenever he is vocalizing at an acceptable level. Keeping up with a positive reinforcement regimen for quieter vocalizations, over time the regimen could be reduced and eventually terminated. The expected result from this treatment would be that the child has learned that it is good to not scream.

From Penny and Sheldon’s behavioral experiment, the ideas developed by Watson and Skinner are clearly reflected and over the years we have seen that behaviors can in fact be conditioned.  This revelation exceedingly affected both psychology of its time and the world. We have learned that the responses we have to certain stimulus could have very well been conditioned in us at an early age. This idea has helped us over time to create tools for better conditioning and behavioral modifications. Those with crippling fears could now work through their fears, and those that are causing the people around them to be irritably disturbed are now able to become a little more tolerable. It goes to show that in fact you can teach an old dog new tricks.

 

 

References

“The Big Bang Theory- Sheldon Trains Penny.” The Big Bang Theory. Season 03 Episode 03, The Gothowitz Deviation. Referred to: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qy_mIEnnlF4

Schultz and Shultz. “A History of Modern Psychology.” 2012. Referred to: Chapter’s 10 and 11.

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