What is Shaping in Psychology? - Definition & Examples

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  • 0:32 Shaping
  • 1:05 B.F. Skinner
  • 1:56 Steps in the Shaping Process
  • 3:30 Shaping in the Classroom
  • 4:55 Applying Shaping
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Wright
How can teachers shape the behavior of their students? In this lesson, you'll not only discover how a pigeon learned how to bowl, but you'll also study the steps required to shape complex acts into continuous behaviors.

Shaping Overview

Have you ever tried to teach a dog to roll over? First, you might reward the dog each time it sits. Then, you might reward it when it lies down. Finally, you reward the dog only when it performs the motion of rolling all the way over. You have intuitively shaped the dog's behavior.

Shaping is the process of reinforcing successively closer and closer approximations to a desired terminal behavior. The shaping of behavior starts at an early age. For example, a child learns to pull itself up, to stand, to walk and to finally move about through reinforcement of slightly exceptional instances of behaviors. Walking doesn't necessarily come naturally to a child, but through subtle reinforcements of being able to reach a toy or move more independently, the child's behavior is shaped.

The behaviorist B. F. Skinner was an important researcher for the behavior analyst model of discipline and shaping student behavior through reinforcement. Skinner first researched the behavioral processes of shaping by trying to teach a pigeon to bowl. The desired outcome was that of a swiping of a wooden ball by the beak of the bird so the ball was sent down a miniature alley toward a set of toy pins. That process involved carefully designed series of discriminative stimuli and reinforcements for subtle changes in response referred to as a program. In order for shaping to be successful, it is important to clearly define the behavioral objective and target behavior, and to know when to deliver or withhold reinforcement.

Steps in the Shaping Process

There are specific steps to follow in the process of shaping behaviors.

1. Reinforce any response that in some way resembles the terminal behavior.

2. Reinforce the response that closely approximates the terminal behavior (no longer reinforcing the previous reinforced response).

3. Reinforce the response that resembles the terminal behavior even more closely.

4. Continue reinforcing closer and closer approximations to the terminal behavior

5. Reinforce only the terminal behavior

Let's look at this step-by-step process with the bowling pigeon example. First, you would reinforce the pigeon each time it approached the bowling ball. Then we would withhold reinforcement until the pigeon's beak made contact with the ball. After initial reinforcement for contact, we would withhold the reinforcement until the pigeon sideswipes the ball with its beak. We would continue to reinforce behaviors that led to the terminal behavior. Finally, we would only reward the pigeon when it has sent the ball down the alley toward the pins.

Skinner referred to the process of continually reinforcing refinements as reinforcing successive approximations. Skinner felt shaping was effective because it is sensitive to the continuous nature of a complex act and it illustrates the utility of constructing complex behavior by the continual process of differential reinforcement.

Importance of Shaping in the Classroom

Shaping can generate complex behaviors that have almost a zero probability of occurring naturally in the final form. I mean, how many pigeons do you see bowling in a natural setting? Shaping also differs from other behavioral modifications such as problem-solving situations like puzzles and mazes. In those types of situations, the subject can only succeed through trial and error. Because the performance of appropriate responses has been left to chance, random incorrect responses also occur.

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