Operational Conditioning and “The Big Bank Theory” Image/science thesis

Thanks to the rise of “The Big Bank Theory” and scientific outreach, knowledge that was previously restricted to “experts” today is popular to most anyone with the hunger to learn.

 The contribution to the popularization of science is not only the work of blogs, magazines and other media more or less specialized in transmitting scientific information; In a subtle way, the dissemination of knowledge has been shed where it can most easily be assumed and assimilated by a broad sector of the population.

A clear example of this is “The Big Bang Theory”, a heterogeneous establishment where they coexist from theoretical physicists, engineers or neuroscientists to the neighboring outsider who often does not play the role of “laboratory rat.” Also at some point the writers of this scientific comedy have gone into psychology.

For many it is incredible, even offensive, to think that human behavior can follow the same principles that guide the behavior of a laboratory rat.

But the truth is that we are very much like them

According to the paradigm of “operand conditioning,” our behavior – and also that of rodents, pigeons, monkeys, and practically any living creature with a certain degree of development – is “controlled” by “contingencies of reinforcement.”

Put quickly, if a behavior follows a pleasant consequence for the organism, it will tend to repeat it; While if the result is averse, the tendency will be to abandon such behavior, possibly until its extinction.

These are basic principles of behavioral psychology, known to all, though sometimes difficult to understand clearly – or to assume, if we resist comparison with mere laboratory animals.

Basically, in the ope-rant conditioning model four possible scenarios are proposed

In a situation of positive reinforcement or “prize”, after issuing a response follows a pleasant consequence, which can be from receiving something material to a verbal praise.

A punishment is an unpleasant or painful consequence for the subject performing the behavior, such as an electric shock in the case of the laboratory rat or an angry insult to the pedestrian crossing the red traffic light.

In the first scenario, the “prize” behavior of the subject will be more likely to be repeated in the future; While-hopefully-the opposite will occur with “punished” behaviors in the case of the laboratory rat or the reckless pedestrian.

But there are also ways to increase or reduce behaviors that do not provide something positive or negative, but – respectively – is removed from the situation something unpleasant or something pleasant for the individual. For example, if someone avoids elevators because the anxiety they experience in small, enclosed places, that escape behavior is “negatively reinforced.” The fearful subject will repeat it in the future. Climbing up the stairs, not the elevator, “takes away” anxiety momentarily and that is certainly a relief.

However, such escape / avoidance responses have a medium to long-term cost: the maintenance of the phobia and the lack of extinction of the fear response.

Finally, “negative punishment” is another way of reducing the appearance of responses considered to be maladaptive.

It consists in making something pleasant disappear for the subject, contingent on the emission of the undesirable response.

Scientific outreach, in short, is finding subtle and fun ways of joining our lives, entering them almost subliminally, and this, while it has undeniable value, can also carry a risk … science can sneak in while we are so unnoticed and with low guard, numerous approaches that may require some critical reflection on the part of the audience.

The sofa debate between Leonard and Sheldon, in the second of the scenes, is an example of the reflection that television science should move on the sofas of our homes. Anyway, have fun and make good use of the techniques taught us by the boys of The Big Bang Theory.


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