"Operant conditioning" is a type of learning developed by B. F. Skinner and other behavioral psychologists. Operant conditioning is a psychological term that describes how people learn from the consequences of their actions. If you do something and something good happens as a result, then you are more likely to repeat that behavior. On the other hand, if you do something and something bad happens, you are much less likely to engage in that kind of behavior.
Reinforcers are the "something good" that can happen as a result of any action. A reinforcer is any consequence that increases the occurrence of a behavior. A punishment is any consequence that decreases the occurrence of a behavior.
- These vary from person to person, as they are based on each individual's interests, tastes and motivation. For example, if you enjoy eating chocolate, you can use that as a motivation to complete a task, like studying. If you give yourself a piece of chocolate for every page you read, you may find yourself motivated to do more studying. However, if you detest chocolate, you will not be more motivated to study more.
- Positive and negative, when used in front of punishment and reinforcement do not mean "good" or "bad," but rather refer to the presentation of a consequence.
A reinforcer is any consequence of a behavior that encourages the behavior to recur.
- Positive reinforcement is when you receive something good as a result of an action; for example, if you allow yourself to eat some delicious chocolate after doing a half an hour of homework, then the chocolate serves to reinforce the act of doing homework.
- Negative reinforcement is removing something as a result of an action; for example, if you allow yourself to skip a chore if you do a half an hour of homework, then you are also likely to do more homework so that you can skip more chores. The important thing to remember is that if it encourages the behavior to happen more often, it is a reinforcer.
A punishment is any consequence of a behavior that discourages that behavior from recurring.
- A positive punishment for a nail biter is behind the idea of putting cayenne pepper on fingernails. When the nail biting behavior occurs, the cayenne pepper burn is presented to the biter. This introduction of a consequence is "positive" and the goal of reducing the nail biting behavior is why this consequence is considered "punishment."
- Negative punishment is removing something as a result of an action that is targeted to be discouraged. A swear jar is an example of a negative punishment because swearing is targeted as a behavior that should be stopped. Every time a person has to pay into a swear jar for their behavior, they are losing valuable money. In time, swearing behaviors should be reduced, if not disappear, to avoid having to lose that money.
Schedules of Reinforcement
- Reinforcement needs to be given more frequently when a new task is started, to motivate every action towards increasing that behavior. This is continuous reinforcement, and on Habitica this happens by gaining XP, gold and mana.
- Reinforcement that is given more gradually, less regularly, or on a schedule based on time or number of tasks completed is called partial reinforcement. Requiring players to earn more XP with every new level is a form of partial reinforcement on Habitica.
- An intermittent schedule of reinforcement is one in which behavior seems to be randomly reinforced. An actual schedule of reinforcement in which the player knows that reinforcers will be coming at a regular rate can be boring or less motivating. Random drops like eggs and potions, as well as Critical Hits (with XP and Mana gains), can keep a player motivated by offering an additional reinforcement. Since the player never knows when the random reinforcement will be offered, they are motivated to repeat the behavior knowing that any given instance may lead to bonus gains. Schedules of reinforcement that are partial or intermittent also create behaviors that are more resistant to extinction, as will be explained in the next section.
Behavioral scientists theorize that all behaviors occur for a reason and that behavior reoccurs because it is being reinforced. If a behavior is no longer being reinforced, or if a replacement behavior can be introduced to eliminate the first behavior, that first behavior can be dramatically decreased. When a behavior is reduced to the point where it no longer reoccurs, the behavior is considered to be extinguished, or made extinct. A player can continue to reward the replacement behavior or the absence of the original behavior but, in time, the reinforcement is not required as stringently as before. On Habitica, it is up to the player to decide when a Daily or Habit is changed or removed, but it should be noted that if the reinforcement of that behavior stops, the change becomes harder to maintain.
Trying to immediately end the occurrence of behavior is like quitting smoking cold turkey. It's not impossible to change behavior this way, but behavioral scientists note that longer-lasting change occurs through making small changes that lead to a behavior. The process of making those small changes is shaping.
The first step in shaping is identifying the targeted behavior. A player may want to meditate, take up a new language, or introduce new foods to their diet. These targeted behaviors do not currently occur. That is, if they could be motivated to occur, they most likely would be part of a player's life already.
The targeted behaviors need to be reinforced before they become part of the player's daily life, but it's very difficult to introduce a new behavior and automatically expect to it reoccur as if it were always part of a player's existence. Shaping is a way of reinforcing all of the steps towards reaching that behavioral goal.
- If a player has an endurance goal, it's best to make a Daily or Habit that starts with a fraction of the intended final behavior. Someone who would like to run a marathon starts by building endurance and reinforcing mile-long runs, then three-mile runs, and so on until the final goal is reached.
- Doing 25 sit-ups is an excellent goal, but for someone who does not exercise at all, it is easier to start with a Daily or Habit of 2-5 per day. With time then increase that number, shaping the behavior, and reinforcing all of the steps along the way to the final goal of 25 a day.
- Increasing times can be helpful as well. Aiming for an hour of meditation or reading can be easily reinforced starting with shorter time periods and building to the goal.
- If a goal is based on frequency, it can be helpful for a player to make a Habit that offers the opportunity to simply begin making behavioral changes towards reaching that goal. If starting from a baseline of never doing an activity, small rewards can be given for any occurrence of the goal. When the Habit, like eating vegetarian or drinking glasses of water, starts to happen more frequently but irregularly, it can be shifted to a Daily.
- The journey to final goals can include short-term goals or benchmarks, and shaping can help make those behaviors occur. A goal of running for an inactive player can begin with increased activity of any type, like walking. Other goals can be multi-step, and each step should be reinforced as the player is reaching a closer and closer approximation of their final desired behavior. Checklists are incredibly helpful for this type of shaping.