Branston recognizes American accents: An operant conditioning example

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A friend and I recently stayed at a bed and breakfast in northern England. The proprietor’s dog—a black terrier named Branston—was an excellent host. There were eight of us at breakfast—four Brits and four Americans. Branston spent some time lying on the floor and some time rotating amongst us. For a few guests, he didn’t limit himself to just looking at us with his puppy dog eyes. He upped it by putting his head in our laps.

While Branston’s owner would prefer that guests not give him food, she said that some do. And she said that those who do are most often Americans. She swears that Branston spends more time with Americans, identifying us by our accents.

I wasn’t even halfway into my full English breakfast before I was deep into thinking about operant conditioning.

Branston is on both a variable interval and variable ratio schedule of reinforcement.

Variable interval. At breakfast, people drop stuff. Branston’s behavior of circulating amongst the guests is occasionally rewarded with finding food on the floor.

Variable ratio. At breakfast, when Branston looks at a guest, his looking behavior is sometimes rewarded by being given a tasty morsel. If that doesn’t work, his head-in-the-lap behavior, he has learned, sometimes results in the same reward.

Discriminative stimulus—anything that signals that a behavior is more likely to be reinforced. Branston has learned that some people are more likely to reward his behavior with food than others. Is there a way he can increase his odds? It sure sounds like Branston is using accents as a discriminative stimulus. If Americans really are more likely to give him food, then it makes sense that he would learn that American accents sound different than, say, British, Danish, or Italian accents. When he hears someone who sounds American, he spends more time looking at them—and putting his head is their lap—because he has learned that we’re more likely to reward this behavior.

Consider using this example to explain discriminative stimulus. If time allows, give students a few minutes to share in small groups other examples of a discriminative stimulus that they have experienced or witnessed.

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About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology since 1992. She has served on several APA boards and committees, and was proud to serve the members of the Society for the Teaching of Psychology as their 2018 president. In 2013, she was the inaugural recipient of the APA award for Excellence in the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning at a Two-Year College or Campus. She received in 2016 the highest award for the teaching of psychology--the Charles L. Brewer Distinguished Teaching of Psychology Award. She presents nationally and internationally on the topics of educational technology and the pedagogy of psychology. She is co-author with Doug Bernstein and Steve Chew of Teaching Psychology: A Step-by-Step Guide, 3rd ed. and is co-author with Charles Stangor on Introduction to Psychology, 4.0.