4 minute read

The Social Control Of Reflex Behavior

Social Behavior

Reflex behavior such as crying is not controlled by its consequences in the environment as an operant response is. Nevertheless, it may come to function in a chain of responses ultimately maintained by operant control, in which the operant repertoire of the individual produces the eliciting stimuli for the reflex.

One major interaction between operant and respondent behavior occurs because of social influences. A community exists that reinforces the child's ill health or other kinds of psycho-logic and physiologic disruptions. Furthermore, if there were some community that would reinforce an individual's behavior only when his pupil contracted, conditions would be present for the development of a chain of responses. First, the operant behavior of handling a flashlight would be reinforced by an effect on pupil size, which, in turn, would be the occasion for some further behavior to produce the final maintaining reinforcer. The reflex is not being reinforced directly by the operant reinforcement procedures. Rather, operant behaviors are produced which change the environment by producing the eliciting stimulus for the reflex. In this manner, an individual may be taught to elicit virtually any reflex within his physiologic repertoire. The same kind of chaining of reflexes might also occur with conditioned reflexes where the operant behavior that is developed now produces the conditioned stimuli for already established conditioned reflexes, because the unconditioned response is the occasion on which further operant behavior may be reinforced. For example, one might train an animal to salivate by first arranging that pressing a lever and producing pellets of food occur only when the animal's mouth is full of saliva. Once the presence of saliva in the mouth has become an occasion correlated with reinforcement, any operant behavior which might produce saliva will be reinforced and sustained in the repertoires. Hence, one might introduce a second lever whose effect would be to produce an injection of acid in the mouth or a whiff of food odors. Pressing the first lever would be reinforced because the resulting food odors would elicit salivation, i.e., the food odors function as a conditioned stimulus in the salivary reflex. Salivation, in turn, would continue to be a reinforcer because it is the occasion when pressing the second lever produces food.

The same process might operate for the crying child. As the parent begins to differentiate between crying under the control of its operant effects on the parent and crying resulting from pain, discomfort, extremes of temperature, or food deprivation, the conditions under which crying is reinforced change. Now, a full-blown emotional episode, with all of the concomitant autonomic reactions such as tears and blushing are necessary before the parent reinforces some behavior of the crying child. Thus, any of the child's performances leading to conditions that will elicit any autonomic reaction will be reinforced because of the relation of the emotional behavior to the probability of reinforcement by the parents. In colloquial terms, the child works himself up to a tantrum or extreme emotional state because these are the conditions when the parent will reinforce some behavior relevant to a current deprivation. In some children one may observe a "warm up," as the early operant crying comes to serve in turn as a conditioned stimulus for reflex crying and as other operant repertoires grow in strength which also produce conditioned stimuli through additional conditioned reflex connections to the crying behavior. The situation is very similar to that of the actress who eventually becomes skilled at crying at a moment's notice and, in fact, may become genuinely disturbed during the "staged crying." At first, crying is elicited because the actress deliberately depresses her mood and irritates the lacrimal gland and sac with the eye muscles. The pressure of the eye muscles (unconditioned stimulus) is the direct elicitation of the glandular response (unconditioned response). The creation of a mood is essentially the emission of operant verbal behavior (conditioned stimuli) that in the past have been associated with situations which precipitated, or might have precipitated, crying (conditioned response). Eventually, however, these elaborate preliminary operant responses may become highly differentiated toward an operant repertoire that is maximally effective in producing the exact stimuli controlling the full-blown elicitation of the reflex. Here, the necessary conditions for the formation of a chain of responses, with a reflex as one link, was the presence of a community, the audience, that reinforced the actress' behavior only on the occasion of a full-blown emotional episode.

Nor is it crucial whether or not the chaining of a reflex is voluntary, involuntary with the individual's awareness, or involuntary without awareness. The reinforcing effect of the production of the reflex by an operant repertoire in no way depends upon any of the individual's own verbal behavior about the new performances that are occurring.

During their development, children have ample opportunity to chain many reflexes through operant reinforcement in the way described above. The main factor in conditioning of somatic conditions is a community that will reinforce or withhold punishment only when there is some somatic difficulty, or at least when some of the conditions associated with somatic difficulties are present. The child can avoid an unpleasant situation in school by staying home only if he is sick. Some parents will give a child affection and attention only when he is sick. The culture, in general, gives special consideration to the sick. The sick individual is entitled to attention and consideration which might be unobtainable under other conditions. It is a social paradox that people who seldom see each other will visit promptly in a hospital or at a funeral. If the consequences which become possible with somatic difficulty are important enough and the alternative repertoires weak enough, conditions are present for the shaping and successive approximations of operant repertoires that will elicit the conditions for somatic difficulties. The process is parallel to the one described for the actress. Although it would be difficult to conceive of a child producing a large magnitude of change in his somatic condition "voluntarily," it is plausible in terms of a gradual "shaping" process in which operant control of the various somatic and visceral states develops gradually.

Additional topics

Human Behavior