Applications of Conditioning Technology

Conditioning research serves as a valuable tool in the psychological exploration of other issues. In essence, conditioning technology provides a means for asking animals questions—a way to explore interesting cognitive processes such as memory, attention, reasoning, and concept formation under highly controlled laboratory conditions in less complex organisms.

Another area of research is the field of behavioral neuroscience, a field that combines physiological and behavioral approaches in order to uncover the neurological mechanisms underlying behavior. For example, the impact of various medications and substances on behavior can be observed by administering drugs as reinforcing stimuli. Animals will produce operant responses in order to receive the same drugs to which humans become addicted. However, in animals, the neurological mechanisms involved in developing addictions can be studied directly, using both behavioral and physiological experimental techniques in a way that would not be possible with human subjects because of ethical considerations.

In addition, the principles of classical and operant conditioning have been used to solve very real human problems in a variety of educational and therapeutic settings, a strategy called applied behavior analysis. The principles of operant conditioning have been widely applied in settings where some degree of control over human behavior is desirable. Token economies are situations in which specified behaviors, such as appropriate classroom behavior, are rewarded according to some schedule of reinforcement. The reinforcers are referred to as tokens because they need not have any rewarding value in and of themselves but can be exchanged for reinforcers at some later time. According to the principles of operant conditioning, people should increase the operant response in order to gain the reinforcers, and if the token economy is developed properly, that is exactly what occurs. If token economies sound rather familiar, it is for good reason. Money is an extremely potent token reinforcer for most people, who perform operant responses (work) in order to receive token reinforcers (money) that can later be exchanged for primary reinforcers (such as food, clothing, shelter, or entertainment).

Finally, learning principles have been applied in clinical psychology in an effort to change maladaptive behaviors. Some examples include a procedure called systematic desensitization, in which the principles of classical conditioning are applied in an effort to treat phobias (irrational beliefs), and social skills training, in which operant conditioning is used to enhance communication and other interpersonal behaviors. These are only two examples of useful applications of conditioning technology to treat mental illness. Such applications suggest the need for ongoing research into basic conditioning mechanisms. One must fully understand conditioning principles in order to apply them appropriately in the effort to understand and improve the human condition.

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