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Sniffy the Virtual Rat Research Paper


Scholars dealing with human and animal behavior have come up with different theories to explain how behavior is acquired or how it becomes extinct. Such scholars include BF Skinner, who advanced operant conditioning theory and Ivan Pavlov, who advanced classical conditioning theory. In this paper, classical and operant conditioning experiments shall be designed. The significance of the experiments and how they relate to human behavior and thinking shall be explained.

Classical conditioning

This is a behavioral learning theory advanced by Ivan Pavlov. In classical conditioning, learning takes place as a result of pairing a natural stimulus together with an environmental stimulus (Hall, 1998). In order for learning to take place, a neutral stimulus is placed before a natural stimulus. According to Cherry (2012), behavior is learnt through association of the two stimuli.

A visit to the dentist experiment

Miss Y has cavities on most of her teeth. It is not the first time for her to have such a problem. In the past, she has been to the dentist and had some of the teeth with cavities extracted. The first time, she found a female doctor who extracted the tooth but she felt no pain. The second time, she found a male dentist who extracted the decayed tooth.

However, the experience was not the same as the one she had during her first extraction. The male dentist extracted the tooth in a way that caused her a lot of pain. During the second time when she felt a lot of pain, Miss Y noted some of the characteristics of the dentist who performed the operation. The male dentist was wearing a white apron, had spectacles on and was from a different racial group (race A).

During her subsequent visit to the dentist to have another tooth extracted, Miss Y finds another dentist that she has never met. However, the dentist is a man, wearing a white apron, with spectacles on and from race A. Before even explaining her problem to this dentist, Miss Y starts shaking due to fear. She starts feeling a lot of pain on her tooth that has not been aching while she was coming to the dentist.

Miss Y is behaving in this manner because she has learnt to associate pain during teeth extraction with male dentist of a certain race. Miss Y decides to check another dentist to extract the tooth. Her next stop lands her to a lady dentist. Miss Y is now relaxed and ready to go through the process of extraction.

She associates the experience is expecting to have with the past painless procedure that she underwent when the extraction was done by a lady. For the rest of the times that she visits a dentist, Miss Y requests to have a lady dentist work on her. Consequently, she claims that the extraction is always painless.

After Miss Y has had her dental problems dealt with, she does not feel the need to continue visiting the dentist as regularly as she did. However, whenever she goes to the hospital and finds a male doctor from race A, she is gripped by intense fear and starts feeling pain in her body. On the contrary, whenever she goes to the hospital and finds a lady doctor, she is more relaxed and less fearful. She says that she feels little or no pain at all when she is treated by a lady doctor.

Miss Y is conditioned that all male doctors from race A inflict pain upon their patient during treatment. On the other hand, all female doctors treat their patients with less pain. Therefore, whenever Miss Y sees a male doctor from race A, even when she does not need his services, she is filled with fear.

Baby and mother experiment

Another example of classical conditioning can be illustrated through a mother’s relationship with her young child. When the child is with the mother, it is naturally quiet and at times jovial. However, when the mother carries her handbag and is about to leave for work, the baby starts to cry. Every time the baby sees the mother carry her handbag, it starts to cry because it is aware that the mother is about to leave.

This happens after the mother repeatedly leaves for work whenever she carries her handbag. The baby therefore associates the handbag with being left behind by the mother. After continuously pairing the handbag with the mother’s departure, the baby starts to cry whenever she sees a handbag, even when the mother is not leaving.

The mother in this case is the neutral stimulus, leaving the baby behind is the unconditioned stimulus, crying the unconditioned response, the mother the conditioned stimulus and crying the conditioned response. The baby’s association of the handbag with being left behind results to generalization. In this case, the baby cries whenever the mother carries anything else that looks like a bag, even when she is not leaving.

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning was first proposed by Burrhus Frederic Skinner commonly known as BF Skinner (Mcleod, 2007). Skinner drew a lot from Thorndike’s work. The most important components of operant conditioning are reinforcement, rewards and punishment. If one reinforces a certain behavior, there is likelihood for the behavior to be exhibited again. However, if behavior is not reinforced, it will most probably be weakened and eventually become extinct.


Positive reinforcement can be demonstrated through the use of a hungry dog placed in a special box. The box has a lever that is strategically placed at the side. The rat is able to move freely inside the box. However, during some of its movement, the rat accidentally steps on the lever at the side of the box. When this happens, the rat notices a food pellet near the lever it has stepped on. The rat learns that pressing the lever is rewarded by provision of food.

Therefore, the rat continues pressing the lever as many times as possible and the outcome is still the same. In this case, the behavior of pressing the lever is reinforced because it results to something desirable. Therefore, the rat continues to press the lever every time it needs something to eat.

This is an example of positive reinforcement, which strengthens a given behavior and increases its chance of recurrence. Behavior is reinforced through rewarding one’s behavior with a desirable consequence. The behavior is likely to be repeated in future if a desirable consequence is provided.

Negative reinforcement

According to Mcleod (2007), another way of strengthening behavior is the use of negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement is applicable to the rat in the box experiment that we used for positive reinforcement. To introduce negative reinforcement, one would expose the rat to something that is not pleasant, for example an electric current. The lever should be set such that the electric current switches off immediately it is pressed by the rat.

Therefore, the rat would learn that pressing the lever provided a way of escape from the unpleasant electric current that it is subjected to. Every time the electric current is switched on in the box, the rat will have a tendency to move to where the lever is and press it in order to escape the unpleasant conditions in the box. The action is repeated over and over again because the rat has learnt how to escape the discomfort caused by the electric current.


Punishment is meant to cause a response to be weak or to make it extinct as opposed to reinforcement that is meant to increase the probability of occurrence of a behavior. There are two ways that can be used to issue out punishment. The first involves application of an unpleasant stimulus after something wrong has been done. The other one is denial of a rewarding stimulus whenever an undesired behavior is exhibited. Punishment is very similar to negative reinforcement.

This type of conditioning can be used to encourage positive behavior in both animals and human beings. It can also be used to discourage negative behavior in humans and animals. Behavior learnt through operant conditioning is easily stopped when the consequences that were encouraging its occurrence are withdrawn. This is what is called extinction.

These experiments enhance the classical conditioning theory advanced by Ivan Pavlov and operant conditioning advanced by Burrhus Frederic Skinner. They show that some behavior that human beings exhibit have been acquired through association of a natural stimulus with the environment as in classical conditioning.

Other behaviors are become permanent or extinct due to positive or negative reinforcement and punishment, as proposed by operant conditioning theory. The theories are applicable in day to day life in both humans and animals.


The experiments support the two theories of behavior acquisition namely: classical and operant conditioning. The animal experiments conducted by BF Skinner and Ivan Pavlov relate very closely to human thinking and behavior.

Reference List

Cherry, K. (2012). . New York: About.com. Web.

Hall, R. (1998). Classical Conditioning. Web.

Mcleod, S. (2007). . London: Psychology Press. Web.

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