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Selfie-taking dog: Classical or operant conditioning?

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I read my share of blogs and news stories. Concepts we cover in Intro Psych appear with some frequency out there in the land of popular culture. Freudian terms—**bleep** retentive, oral fixation—seem to be less commonly used than they used to be. Correlations—described, if not named—pop up often. Unfortunately, they’re too often discussed in terms of causation. Classical and operant conditioning often make appearances, and, yes, negative reinforcement is frequently confused with punishment.

When a writer mentions classical/Pavlovian conditioning, I go on the alert. Is this really an example of classical conditioning? Or is it mislabeled operant conditioning? I’m pulling for the writer to get it correct. And I do a little celebratory dance when they do. I haven’t been doing many celebratory dances lately.

When it comes to conditioning, the default assumption seems to be that whatever the example is, it’s classical conditioning. If the person says it is an example of operant conditioning, they’re usually correct. If the person says it is an example of classical conditioning, well, they’re less often correct.

When I cover classical and operant conditioning in Intro Psych, I emphasize that classical conditioning invokes involuntary behaviors and operant conditioning requires voluntary behaviors. Since we cover these topics sequentially, it’s easy to just cover and move on. But given how easy it is for people to conflate these types of conditioning, some interleaving is in order. In interleaving, it’s important for students to get practice moving back and forth between classical and operant conditioning. Here’s an example you can use to help students get a bit of practice in separating classical from operant conditioning.

Ask students to read this short article (“Simone Giertz built a photo booth that lets her dog take selfies for treats”). Students do not need to watch the 15-minute video, but they certainly may if they’d like. In a synchronous or an asynchronous group discussion, ask:

The author of the article writes that Simone Giertz “Pavlov’d her dog into taking selfies.” Is this true? Has the selfie-taking dog been trained using classical (also called Pavlovian) conditioning? Or has the dog been trained using operant conditioning? Explain the reasons for your choice.

Once students have correctly identified this as operant conditioning, you may want to expand the discussion.

What would happen if the dog kept pressing the pedal and no more treats were given?

Let’s take the discussion a little further.

Now let’s say that after several repetitions, the dog salivated when the rotating dispenser delivered a treat. Would that be classical or operant conditioning? Explain the reasons for your choice.

And one more step.

What would happen here if the dispenser rotated, but no treat was delivered? What would happen to the selfie-taking dog’s amount of salivation?

Conclusion

By giving students interleaving practice with classical and operant conditioning using real-world examples, hopefully, they will be better equipped to detect errors—and when they start writing for the public, they’ll not make those same errors in identification. And, in the end, the public will learn from the correct applications of these concepts.

About the Author
Sue Frantz has taught psychology in community colleges since 1992, and has been at Highline College in the Seattle area since 2001. 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.