Operant Conditioning In Movies

Operant Conditioning is an associative learning process that uses reinforcement and punishment to modify behaviors. Behaviorist B. F. Skinner first defined operant conditioning and based his theory on two assumptions. The first assumption states that the environment drives human behavior. Second, the outcome of the behavior determines its likelihood of repetition. Behavior that results in a favorable outcome has a higher probability of repeating and behavior that results in an unfavorable outcome has a decreased likelihood of repetition. Let us find the best examples of operant conditioning in movies.

You must have witnessed examples of operant conditioning in real life. Your parents and teachers have used various reinforcers and punishers throughout your childhood. This is to cultivate positive behaviors and prevent negative behaviors.

You must have seen many examples of operant conditioning in movies, too!

Examples Of Operant Conditioning In Movies

Here is a list of examples of operant conditioning in movies.

Mean Girls

In Mean Girls, Cady Heron, a teenager homeschooled all her life in Africa, moves to the US at 16 and starts high school. She struggles with fitting in with various groups of people throughout the school. As she attempts to fit in and make friends in a new setting. Cady is a compassionate and intelligent high school student. She excels in math and has no trouble grasping the ideas of calculus when she first enrolls at the school. Cady instantly develops a crush on her classmate, Aaron. She tries to get closer to him by having him teach her maths. So she intentionally fails the math test by pretending to be bad at it. To get her desired behavior (attention from Aaron), she uses a positive reinforcer (pretending to be bad at math).

In another instance, Cady gives Regina Kalteen bars, Swedish nutrition bars that help you gain weight quickly. She tells Regina that consuming those bars would help her to continuously lose weight and burn calories. She makes her gain weight as part of her plan to make Regina lose her status as the queen bee of North Shore High School. Cady manipulates Regina into eating those bars (reinforcer) to get her to gain weight (desired behavior).

The Miracle Worker

This movie depicts the extraordinary life of Helen Keller. The American author lost her vision, hearing, and voice at only 19 months old. Ms. Anne Sullivan, Helen’s teacher, and life-long companion used operant conditioning to encourage desired behaviors and to eliminate undesirable behaviors. Before Ms. Sullivan’s intervention, Helen’s family used to give her candies when she would throw a temper tantrum to prevent her aggressive behavior, but this led Helen to associate receiving candies with aggressiveness. Doing so would reinforce her to act out often in order to receive candies.

When Ms. Sullivan intervened, she would use primary reinforcers such as food and non-social rewards like dolls that would appeal value to Helen to reinforce desirable behaviors in her. Similarly, she used punishment to eliminate undesirable behaviors in her.

When threw water and slapped Ms. Sullivan’s face, she did the same thing to Helen for several rounds back and forth. She didn’t slap her too hard, it was more of a mimicry. Ms. Sullivan also made Helen refill the pitcher of water she had thrown. These punishments made Helen stop repeating these behaviors.

Ms. Sullivan wouldn’t let Helen play with her dolls if she did not spell out the word ‘doll’ using sign language. She would not allow Helen to eat cake if she didn’t spell out the word correctly. In the breakfast scene, Ms. Sullivan taught Helen a chain of behaviors: how to sit properly at the dining table, how to place her hands at the table, and how to use her spoons and forks properly. In this scene, the stimulus was food placed on the table and Helen’s desire to eat it.

Throughout the movie and in real life, Ms. Sullivan used various reinforcers and punishers to help Helen pick up desirable behaviors.

Good Will Hunting

Will Hunting is a 20-year-old janitor at MIT. He is a genius and self-taught but never really uses his gift for better pay. Professor Gerald Lambeaus, a mathematics professor at MIT found out about Will and his genius when Will solves a difficult combinatorial mathematics problem that Lambeau had posted on the blackboard for his graduate students. One day, Will beats a member of a gang who used to bully him when he was just a child and ends up in jail. In court, Lambeau attends Will’s court session and arranges for him to attend psychotherapy sessions and study mathematics under his supervision. The judge agrees to foster the development of healthy behaviors in Will. Judge uses therapy sessions and maths classes (reinforcers) to motivate Will to redeem himself (a desirable outcome).

The Ending Note 

Though reinforcers and punishers can be seen in natural settings all the time, some films have done an admirable job of illustrating these behaviors and assisting a wider audience in understanding them. As a method for teaching and changing behavior, operant conditioning is still very useful. 

You can train your pet or teach your kids good manners using operant conditioning. Explore what form of punishment or reinforcement would be appropriate for your particular circumstance and determine which form of reinforcement might produce the desired results.

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