Applying Operant Conditioning to Change a Teenager’s Behavior

Description of a Target Behavior

Within the framework of this paper, operant conditioning-based intervention will be applied to change behavior of a teenager who ignores requests of his parents to clean his room. When asked to organize and clean his room, the adolescent finds excuses not to complete the chore. Therefore, the target behavior that the operant conditioning will shape is the teenager’s compliance with parental requests to clean the room and refraining from making excuses for not performing a required chore. The problem behavior occurs in a home setting. Its function is to avoid performing a low-interest task. One may hypothesize that the teenager fails to demonstrate target behavior because he lacks sufficient positive motivation and faces no negative consequences for ignoring requests made by his parents. In other words, there are no effective reinforcements to stimulate the adolescent to keep the room clean and tidy or punishments for keeping the room messy and unkempt. Therefore, the target behavior can be defined by the following statement, “The subject avoids using excuses for not cleaning his room and cleans his room when parents ask him to.”

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Breaking the Behavior Down into the Manageable Parts

In a given scenario, the problem and target behavior may be broken into parts that are going to be changed and shaped respectively using operant conditioning. First, when the subject (the adolescent) is asked to clean the room, he responds to such requests with a measure of hostility that makes further communication tense and easily provokes conflicts. Second, the subject never starts acting on a request right away. He may say that he will do it later but does not intend to keep his word. A promise to clean the room is a way of avoiding reproaches from parents. The teenager takes as long as possible to postpone the task. Third, when reminded about the need to clean the room, the adolescent brings up a reason why he cannot do it, either he has to work or anything else. Fourth, the teenager avoids cleaning the room by either leaving the house, complaining about a headache, doing anything else that is supposedly more timely or important, or locking himself in the room. Therefore, the problem behavior can be broken down into the following parts: (a) provocative response to the request to clean the room, (b) delaying the work by making false promises and passive avoidance, (c) making up reasons not to clean the room, (d) getting distracted with other tasks or practicing active avoidance. Consequently, the target behavior can be broken into the following parts that are going to be shaped: (a) demonstrating positive attitude towards requests to clean the room and accepting the task, (b) refraining from passive and active avoidance of the chore, (c) avoiding making excuses for not cleaning the room, and (d) complying with requests made by parents to clean the room.

Process that Will Be Used to Shape Behaviors

The process that will be used to shape the target behavior is called operant conditioning. The application of this method implies modifying behavior by positive and negative consequences (rewards/ reinforcements or punishments respectively) (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003; Law, Siu, & Shek, 2012). The purpose of consequences or stimuli is to control behavior. The goal of positive reinforcement is to enhance the desired behavior (Law et al., 2012). In a given scenario, the desired behavior is a willing compliance with a request to clean the room. Monetary reward (US $10) will play the role of positive stimuli. The financial incentive is going to be given to the teenager every time he complies with a request to clean the room within half an hour after the request. The goal of punishment is to decrease the problematic behavior by adding negative stimuli (monetary fine of US $15). The process of shaping behavior will start on an agreed upon date. The teenager has given consent to participate in the process.

Evaluating Different Types of Reinforcements

Reinforcements applied within the framework of operant conditioning can be positive and negative. The former provides a desired incentive right after a subject demonstrates correct behavior (Law et al., 2012). For example, the teenager will get a monetary reward right after cleaning the room (positive reinforcement). Negative reinforcements can either (a) remove undesired stimuli right after a subject demonstrates correct behavior or (b) evoke behavior that avoids undesired stimuli (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003; Law et al., 2012). Therefore, behavior can be controlled by using both positive and negative reinforcements. A study by Scott-Clayton (2011) found that a promise of the financial incentive has a significant and robust influence over a person’s performance in an effort to earn the reward. Hence, in a given case, using monetary reward as reinforcement for modifying behavior is a justified researched-based intervention.

Factors that Should Be Considered when Selecting Reinforcements

There are several factors that should be considered when selecting financial incentives as reinforcements. For example, monetary rewards should be appropriate and effective for changing deeply ingrained behavioral patterns of teenagers. Galvan (2010) explains that adolescence is a developmental period when one’s reward-seeking behavior may increase. Therefore, the financial incentive may be effective in motivating teenagers. Furthermore, Gneezy, Meier, & Rey-Biel (2011) claim that well-specified and well-targeted external monetary incentives may be moderately effective in modifying behavior in the short and even in the middle run. Hence, one should be aware that in a given case, withdrawing incentive after a certain time might lead to the extinction or decreasing of the desired behavior. Additionally, Gilman, Treadway, Curran, Calderon, & Evins (2015) state that social environment influences decision-making regarding monetary incentives, and that peer influence positively impacts on effort-based choices to earn a reward. Therefore, positive role models among peers may motivate the adolescent to do a chore for money. However, Klein, Graesch, & Izquierdo (2009) argue that monetary reward is ineffective in inducing children to participate in household work.
Therefore, there are several factors that should be considered when selecting reinforcement in the form of the monetary reward. The first aspect that should be taken into account when the monetary reward is used as reinforcement is that it can serve as a relevant and valid incentive for adolescents. The second factor to consider is that the monetary reward can be ineffective in a long run for achieving a lasting behavioral change. The third aspect is that peer influence can positively motivate the teenager to engage in cleaning the room for pay. The fourth issue to consider is a possibility that monetary reward may turn out ineffective.

Balancing Reinforcement with Extinction while Shaping Behavior

During the process of shaping and modifying behavior, reinforcement should be effectively balanced with extinction. While positive and negative punishments reduce the probability of the modified behavior, positive and negative reinforcements increase the probability of the desired behavior (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). Extinction takes places when positive or negative reinforcement is no longer applied to produce the desired/ reinforced behavior. Since reinforcement is not present during the extinction, the probability of the desired behavior decreases. Therefore, reinforcement can be balanced with extinction by maintaining the former for a reasonable length of time until the adolescent develops a new habit of either cleaning the room regularly or complying with parental requests to clean the room.

Potential Consequences of Using Operant Conditioning

Using too much reinforcement or too much extinction can potentially lead to particular consequences. For example, a very frequent reinforcement can decrease motivation or weaken a subject’s response to stimuli. Such an outcome can occur either because (a) the teenager starts viewing positive reinforcement as meaningless when he has no need for money anymore (the value of an incentive decreases) or (b) unreasonable frequent requests to clean the room and subsequent frequent usage of negative reinforcement (fine) can make the process overly challenging for the adolescent, resulting in a loss of interest in cleaning the room due to inability to gain a monetary reward.

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Relevance of Operant Conditioning to My Personal Career Goals

I consider myself a self-disciplined, fairly self-motivated, and purpose-driven person. I like a feeling of inner satisfaction, when I complete a task well. In reaching my goals, I am not usually driven by passion. Having a clear goal prompts me and infuses with energy and inspiration for the work. Therefore, in reaching career objectives, I rely on intrinsic motivation. I am aware that when it is low, I have a hard time applying reinforcements to myself to achieve behavior modification. Therefore, in regard to my career goals, I do not consider operant conditioning to be effective for motivating me to reach career objectives. Moreover, when I am aware that a boss or a manager uses operant conditioning to shape any behavior in me, I feel that others try to manipulate me.
However, I feel that operant conditioning can be used to motivate me to increase productivity. For example, I am going to exert additional effort to earn extra income if a monetary reward is used as a positive reinforcement for enhancing productivity. However, I doubt that using negative reinforcement or punishment would be effective in motivating me to pursue career goals. I would perceive it as manipulations. When my intrinsic stimuli to pursue a certain career objective is strong, external factors do little to induce me or decrease my motivation. Thus, I believe that in my case, self-motivation is more effective that external positive or negative motivation used within a framework of operant conditioning.

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