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Operant conditioning: Shaping

Created by Jeffrey Walsh.

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Video transcript

If someone were to say I want to learn to do a headstand, you might think of the headstand as some sort of activity or behavior that they're going to learn through practicing headstands. But I want to emphasize a certain word in the sentence, and that's "learn." Oftentimes when we think about learning, we think of things like learning facts. For instance, if I were to tell you to learn that the capital of Ohio was Columbus, if you didn't know that, you might learn it by writing it down over and over and say, OK, Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio. Or maybe you'll make a flash card with Ohio on one side and Columbus on the other. And that's the type of learning where you're learning facts. But learning a headstand, there really isn't any note cards, or flash cards, or notes involved. It's more a matter of practicing the behavior of performing a headstand. But if you're like me, performing a headstand isn't something that I can do naturally. Someone who can perform a headstand typically learned to do it through practice. And that learning through practice idea has a specific name in operant conditioning. And the term for this type of learning is "shaping." And shaping is something that you are already very familiar with. But maybe you've never heard the term before. The idea of shaping is that you successively or gradually reinforce behaviors that lead up to or approximate the target behavior. So you successively-- or another word for this is "gradually"-- reinforce behaviors that approximate or come close to the target behavior. So in other words, shaping isn't just performing a headstand. It's that process of learning to perform the headstand, which we're going to go through in a minute. But the important thing to consider is what is the target behavior? Before you can shape a behavior, you have to determine what's the target behavior. So in this example, we're going to use the headstand. So let's say this is you. Here you are. And ultimately, your goal or target behavior is to perform a headstand. So we're going to learn this successively or gradually by reinforcing behaviors that lead up to the headstand. So maybe you're going to like a yoga class to learn this. And the first thing we want to reinforce is maybe just showing up to class. You took the time to block out time in your schedule, to get dressed and drive over to this yoga studio. There's a lot of things and factors involved which is showing up to class. And showing up to class is, if you think about it, a very important aspect of learning to perform a headstand, at least if you're taking a yoga class. But after a while, that's not going to be enough obviously as your goal is to perform a headstand. And just showing up to class isn't going to make you learn it necessarily. So eventually, that's not going to be enough. And so next you want to reinforce maybe putting your hands on the mat. And I'm told this position is called a down dog. So we're going to reinforce putting your hands on the mat. And of course, there going to be several factors involved here, like making sure your legs are straight, and your arms are positioned in the right place, and your shoulders are positioned in the correct spot. There's a lot of factors if you think about it than just contorting your body in this position. And so you want to learn do this properly so you don't have any injuries and so you can ultimately be able to perform your target behavior of doing a headstand. But again, eventually this isn't going to be enough because the goal here is to perform a headstand. So next, you're going to reinforce a behavior that approximates or comes even closer to a headstand. And let's say in this case, you're going to reinforce placing your forearms on the mat. So now that you're in this position where your feet are on the mat, and your elbows are down, and your forearms are on the mat, that's pretty close to performing a headstand. At least it's closer than just showing up to class. But next, you're going to have to reinforce the behavior of, let's say, lifting your legs up in the air, which will lead to a headstand. So eventually the forearms on the mat are no longer going to be reinforced. And we'll say you're going to reinforce lifting your legs up in the air, which will lead to the headstand. And so this is the behavior you want to reinforce, lifting legs. And this is actually the target behavior. But as you can see, this guy didn't just show up to class and perform the headstand. They had to gradually or successively learn to perform the target behavior. Now, I've been putting green check marks here to represent reinforcement. And reinforcement, it can be a physical object like money or prizes. But it can also be something as intangible, like praise for instance, hearing the yoga instructor say, great job or you're doing a good job. Keep it up. Praise is also a reinforcer. But I drew this out because I want to represent the process of shaping. Shaping isn't just performing the behavior. It's gradually reinforcing behaviors that lead up to or approximate the target behavior. And shaping is a process of learning that isn't just used in humans. It's also used in animals. And that's how animal trainers have a job. Their whole job revolves around shaping the behaviors of animals. So when you see that seal balance a ball on its nose, it didn't just naturally do that. It learned it through the animal trainer successively reinforcing the behaviors that lead up to balancing a ball on its nose. The same process has occurred when you see people who show you their dog, who can shake hands or roll over on command. The dog didn't learn it through taking notes or reading a book on rolling over. It learned it by being successively reinforced until it ultimately performed the target behavior that their owner had in mind. So this is shaping.