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Complex Behavior: Definition & Learning

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  • 0:00 Understanding Complex Behavior
  • 1:25 Classical Conditioning
  • 2:26 Operant Conditioning
  • 3:28 Better Understanding…
  • 4:35 Complex Behavior: An Example
  • 5:32 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Andrew Diamond

Andrew has worked as an instructional designer and adjunct instructor. He has a doctorate in higher education and a master's degree in educational psychology.

What do behavioral psychology and Rube Goldberg machines have in common? Find out in this lesson! Explore some basic tenets of behavior and look at examples of complex behavior.

Understanding Complex Behavior

There once lived an engineer and a cartoonist by the name of Rube Goldberg. During his time, he was well known for developing bizarre machines that addressed the simplest of tasks in the most complex manner imaginable. For example, a candle might burn a string until it snaps and releases a hammer that rings a bell. In turn, the bell's vibration shakes a ball down a ramp and sets off a series of dominoes, the last of which leads to a light switch. The Rube Goldberg machine is an excellent example of the processes involved in complex behavior, which is a combination of different types of behaviors.

To better understand this, we have to take a step back and look at behaviorism from a psychological viewpoint. We are all born with certain behaviors, such as crying when hungry or frowning when unhappy. Psychologists call these innate behaviors, which we define as behaviors that are the result of genetics. By comparison, learned behaviors are behaviors acquired through observation and reinforcement. While there have been volumes written on behaviorism, we'll focus on a few important aspects of behaviorism to give you a strong understanding of complex behavior..

Classical Conditioning

Pioneered by noted Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning involves pairing an innate response with an external stimulus. Pavlov used dogs to demonstrate this principle. Just before the dogs were fed, he'd ring a bell. By continually pairing these two events, he discovered that the dogs would begin to salivate as soon as they heard the bell, even without any food present. The two - being fed and hearing a bell - had become linked. This has since been dubbed the Pavlovian response.

If you want an example of this behavior in humans, just observe a class of students when the bell rings at the end of class. Instantly, they all grab their belongings and shoot up out of their seats. Freedom! Now, if you want to be cruel, ring the bell in the middle of class. The students will think class is over, even though it isn't the right time, and they'll react. They have been classically conditioned to believe that when they hear the bell, class is over.

Operant Conditioning

American psychologist B.F. Skinner developed the concept of operant conditioning, whereby behavioral changes occur as a result of punishment and reinforcement. He conducted experiments in operant conditioning by placing a small animal (usually a lab rat or a pigeon) in what is called a Skinner box. In this box, the animal has access to a red light, a green light, a switch, and a food dispenser. If the green light goes on and the animal hits the switch, it will receive food, which is reinforcement. However, if the red light goes on and the animal hits the switch, it may receive a slight shock from an electric grid on the floor, which is punishment. In this way, the animal will learn when to hit the switch and when not to hit the switch.

You can see examples of operant conditioning in educational environments when students experience rewards for good behavior and consequences for bad behavior. Clean up your desk? Get a gold star! Hit another student? That's a time out.

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