Respondent and Operant Learning and Their Impact in Groups

The following excerpt has been adapted  from Evolution and Contextual Behavioral Science, edited by Steven C. Hayes, PhD, & David Sloan Wilson, PhD

Contextual behavioral science (CBS) is based in an evolutionary perspective of behavior. Behavior varies and is selected for continuation or repetition according to its functionality in serving the organism’s goals. Variation in behavior occurs through learning.

Humans are unique in their capacity to make use of arbitrary symbols as cues to transform how they respond to events. However, in order to talk about that, we have to  briefly mention the more ancient processes of respondent and operant learning.

Such automatic bodily and emotional learning processes are crucial parts of behavior in groups that are often ignored when we focus on more rational, verbal processes.

Much of our emotional responding to other people has its foundations in respondent learning. For example, a child with a caring mother with brown eyes may learn to associate brown eyes with feelings of warmth and safety and may consequently trust people with brown eyes more.

Conversely, a child who grows up in a household where arguments often escalate into violence may learn that conflict predicts violence and therefore become fearful in the presence of even mild disagreements. Just as Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate at the sound of a bell, for this child, raised voices become a conditioned stimulus for a conditioned fear response, leading to avoidance of even productive forms of conflict.

Such automatic, emotional reactions are pervasive in groups, sometimes have great impact, and are relatively difficult to control.

Operant learning is based upon the consequences of behavior. A person with performance anxiety might notice that spending a lot of time preparing for a presentation sometimes increases the likelihood of the presentation going well. If that contingency (preparation leading to the presentation going well) increases the frequency of the behavior (a greater likelihood of preparation), operant learning is occurring. Alternatively, the person might learn that avoiding presentations (behavior) decreases her anxiety (removal of a negative consequence) and thus may become increasingly likely to avoid presentations: another form of operant learning.

Group Behavior

These sorts of nonverbal processes can be found everywhere in groups. For example, many  managers have an unexamined history of avoiding conflict because this avoidance behavior is often immediately reinforced with reductions in discomfort and anxiety.

Both humans and nonhuman animals can learn respondently or operantly. But humans can also learn to relate events symbolically.

Relational frame theory (RFT; Hayes, Barnes-Holmes, & Roche, 2001) is perhaps the best-supported current behavioral approach to human language and higher cognition, with an impressive list of empirical predictions that have subsequently been confirmed (Hayes, Gifford, & Ruckstuhl, 1996). According to RFT, the core of human language is the ability to derive mutual and combinatorial relations among events based in part on social cues. This process of derivation then alters the behavioral impact of these events.

See also: Behavioral Activation: A Values-Based Approach to Behavioral Change

These symbolic relations dramatically enhance the human capacity to cooperate (Hayes & Sanford, 2014). Although human groups engage in nonverbal processes such as co-location and shared toil in physical tasks, the vast majority of their behavior is symbolic in nature.

Symbolic Learning

Symbolic learning can sometimes undermine cooperation, as when group members derive unhelpful interpretations of the motives of others. But in the main, symbolic learning massively enhances the potential for cooperation.

Using language, humans in groups discuss their aims and objectives, difficulties they might encounter, and how to overcome them. We plan for the future and remember what worked and what did not in the past. And we track behavior and seek to change it using language processes.

Symbolic learning also enables humans to cooperate more effectively by making and following instructions. Within CBS, rule-governed behavior is behavior under the control of a “contingency specifying stimulus” such as an “if-then” rule. So, for example, one group member might instruct another that “when we have a meeting [antecedent or context], you should write down what we discuss in the form of minutes [behavior], so that people can better understand and remember the action points from the meeting [consequence of the behavior].”

Rules can also be descriptive rather than prescriptive. For example, a person’s behavior may be influenced by a personally held “self-rule” that “people who openly disagree [behavior] in meetings [antecedent context] are likely to be seen as troublemakers and poor team-players [consequence].”

Bringing behavior under the stimulus control of rules can be enormously helpful in groups. Group members can be quickly instructed about how to perform complex behaviors efficiently and effectively without any need for trial-and-error learning.

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