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MCAT

Unit 4: Lesson 1

Foundations of behavior passages

Cats and dogs and conditioning

Problem

When Edward Thorndike put cats into puzzle boxes at the turn of the 20th century, he found that the cats got out more and more quickly over successive trials. Thorndike posited that positive consequences (such as escaping the box) strengthened certain behaviors, and negative consequences (like being stuck in the box) weakened other behaviors. This marked the beginning of the idea of operant conditioning, which holds that when behavior leads to certain consequences, those consequences then influence the behavior. Consequences can be thought of as reinforcements or punishments, which try to enforce or dissuade behavior, respectively.
Operant conditioning is not to be confused with classical conditioning, in which a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus to elicit an unconditioned response. For example, say Thorndike rang a bell immediately before he put the cats in their boxes. Let us assume that the cats naturally have a negative reaction to being boxed, and begin to yowl loudly when this happens. If the bell was continually paired with being boxed over some period of time, the cats would probably develop a negative response to the sound of a bell, as they associated it with being put in a box. Once the neutral stimulus alone elicits the same response as the unconditioned stimulus, it is referred to as the conditioned stimulus, and its response is a conditioned response. Thus, when the cats begin to yowl just at the sound of the bell, the bell has become a conditioned stimulus.
A boy has decided to try to use conditioning to train his new dog. In order to teach his dog to fetch, he draws up the following plan:
Figure 1: The action plan to train the dog to fetch.
Exposure therapy is a technique used to treat anxiety. Patients are encouraged to confront the source of their fear in a context without any danger, in the hopes that this will help them overcome it. What principle does this technique most closely related to?
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