Why are Riverdale Students So Deterred by Lost Item Emails?

Why are Riverdale Students So Deterred by Lost Item Emails?

There are plenty of behaviors we students at Riverdale partake in that have been operationally conditioned: studying for a test to get a good grade, behaving in class so as not to be scolded by the teacher, concealing conservative views to avoid criticism . But what is operant conditioning?  In the early twentieth century, psychologist B.F Skinner was studying animal behavior and theorized that he could condition  their behavior through the use of reinforcers, which is a consequence that strengthens an organism’s future behavior. He coined this method of behavior modification operant conditioning.

Photo Courtesy of Mateo Garcia  B.F Skinner Rat Operative Conditioning Experiment.

Photo Courtesy of Mateo Garcia
B.F Skinner Rat Operative Conditioning Experiment.

In order to test his theory, Skinner built a small controlled chamber in which he could introduce various stimuli. Skinner began by placing a hungry rat into the box. The box contained a lever. A rat would accidentally bump into the lever as it moved around the space. Whenever the rat pushed the lever a food pellet would be dispensed into the container.  Soon the rat learned to push the lever whenever it wanted food and it became more and more likely to push the lever. This is known as positive reinforcement – the use of a reward (i.e. the food pellets) that increases the probability that the behavior is repeated.

While the use of a positive reinforcer can increase behavior, the removal of a negative reinforcer can do the same. This is known as negative reinforcement because the withdrawal of a negative stimuli causes the subject to increase the behavior that removed that stimuli. Skinner tested this by applying an uncomfortable electric shock to the box which the rat could turn off by pushing the lever.  Eventually the rat learned to push the lever whenever the electric shock was applied, reinforcing the rats lever pushing behavior in its desire to escape the negative stimulus.

The last of Skinner’s behavior modifiers is known as punishment. Punishment is the opposite of positive and negative reinforcement because it doesn’t increase behavior, it decreases behavior.  For example, giving the rat an electric shock whenever it pushes the lever would decrease the rats lever pressing behavior.

The punishment aspect of operant conditioning can be applied to “lost item” emails.  Those infamous emails that plague our inboxes every week that contain the cries of absent-minded students pleading for help in locating their lost items. Often disguised in the subject of the email as a bake sale or an invitation to fondle puppies, these emails have come to be despised by a majority of students.  Our desire to ignore these emails is the result of operant conditioning. We, like the rats in Skinner’s box, are also punished for our behavior. In the rat's case it was getting electrocuted for pushing a lever, in our case it is reading lost item emails.  The punishment of opening the emails  decreases the behavior of opening or reading future lost item emails. However, it can also reduce the chance that students read or open other emails not associated with lost items.  This is called generalization, the response to a stimulus  that occurs with another similar stimulus. We find that not only do lost item emails punish the student and reduce the probability that they read future lost item emails, but they also reduce the probability that the student reads other emails. We have been operationally conditioned throughout high school, and if we understand where our behavior originates, such as a repulsion for emails, then we can yield a greater agency over our lives.

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