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Big Bang Theory – Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Background:

This clip is from the episode “The Gothowitz Deviation” from the show The Big Bang Theory. Leonard (the one with glasses) and Sheldon (the one with the Green Lantern shirt) are roommates and have a new problem. Penny is Leonard’s girlfriend, and she’s getting on Sheldon’s nerves. Leonard tells Sheldon that he should be nicer to Penny because he’s always sarcastic and condescending. Sheldon decides to employ operant conditioning techniques, through chocolate, and correct her behavior to his liking. From correcting seating positions to vocal tones, Sheldon changes Penny’s behavior while she stays at their apartment.

Discussion Questions:

1. How did Sheldon use the chocolate On Penny? On Leonard?

2. How valid is B.F Skinner in saying that people do not need to think to learn?

3. Sheldon argues that if he were allowed to use Negative Reinforcement, he could change her behavior before they went to bed. In contrast to how well the chocolate worked as an incentive to change behavior, how well do you think the “small electric shocks” would have worked? Why?

Analysis:

Although Leonard protests constantly for Sheldon to stop treating Penny like a lab rat, Sheldon continued to use chocolate as reinforcement for what he saw as good behavior in the apartment. Before he utilized the reinforcement techniques, Sheldon would constantly belittle Penny. Now with the chocolate, Sheldon shows approval for Penny’s correction of quality problems. The morality behind Sheldon’s method is questionable, but there’s no doubt that positive reinforcement can teach new behavior through rewards. Because Leonard was resisting Sheldon the whole time, Sheldon sprayed him with wateras a demonstration of punishment for his behavior.

Sheldon uses chocolate as positive reinforcement on Penny and tries to do on Leonard as well.

B.F. Skinner argues that people don’t need to think to learn because through simple conditioning, cats, rats, dogs, and monkeys are able to change their behavior. In this example, it seems that Penny does think about her behavior when she makes corrections. However, she doesn’t seem aware of the fact that Sheldon is employing conditioning techniques on her. Leonard on the other hand, is fully aware of what’s happening and resists change.

The small electric shocks theoretically would have been illegal for one thing, but it probably would have given Sheldon total control in changing behavior instantly. However, the punishment would probably create a backlash from Penny. Because both are friends, Penny would retain ill will towards Sheldon and might even turn to violence—much like employees that feel that they are unreasonably terminated.

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17 Responses to “Big Bang Theory – Operant Conditioning”

  1.   By mdr45 on Apr 4, 2010 | Reply

    This is a perfect clip for talking about conditioning. I think it shows a way that operant conditioning can be used outside of research environment. The method used by Sheldon as well as the reward tool is something that anyone can relate to because almost everyone knows chocolate and its almost universal appeal (outside of our class that is). The analysis here is good I am glad to see you tried back in to skinner and how sheldon wanted to take things a step further with the electric shocks.

  2.   By wjs99 on Apr 4, 2010 | Reply

    The clip demonstrates how the operant theory works.

    Instead of working on animals as Skinner did, Sheldon conducted the experiment on a human being, Penny. Sheldon demonstrated that by giving reward (chocolate), Penny would subconsciously repeat behaviors that were deemed desirable by Sheldon.

  3.   By sk839 on Apr 5, 2010 | Reply

    Good topic! I don’t think a lot of groups touched upon operant conditioning.

    Your analysis is great. The different reactions between Penny and Leonard really does emphasize to show that when it is done very subtly, operant conditioning really does not require too much thinking.

  4.   By Shane Jackson on Apr 5, 2010 | Reply

    Very good example of operant conditioning. Penny continues to repeat actions that she has been rewarded for subconsciously. How she doesn’t catch on that shes being treated like a dog I don’t know.

  5.   By Jim Harris on Sep 30, 2010 | Reply

    However, there is one error in the dialogue. Sheldon says that he can use negative reinforcement to further train Penny. He then alludes to the fact that the spray will do what he wants. The spray is punishment, not negative reinforcement (which could be removing the spray to get what he wants).

  6.   By Dan Paxton on Oct 2, 2010 | Reply

    Excellent catch Mr. Harris. Many people make the mistake of equating negative reinforcement with punishment. I was surprised that the writers for sitcom made this same mistake.

  7.   By Dan Lambeth on Mar 19, 2011 | Reply

    I think Big Bang Theory is on it’s way to being one of those classics that people can laugh at for a long time.
    The casting director who found “Sheldon” found a gold mine because that guy is great.
    It is hilarious that even though Leonard knew what was going on Sheldon was still able to “condition” him.
    It reminds me of an episode where Sheldon’s mom was in town and she got Sheldon back together with Amy Farrah-Fowler.
    She was using reverse psychology and had all of them doing her bidding.

  8.   By Air Max LTD Men White Gold Black on Jul 19, 2011 | Reply

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  9.   By discount uggs on Sep 15, 2011 | Reply

    Thank you, I have recently been searching for information about this topic for ages and yours is the best I have found out so far. But, what about the conclusion? Are you sure in regards to the supply?

  10.   By Jon Renard on Oct 30, 2011 | Reply

    Thank you Jim Harris and Dan Paxton!! I have argued this point to my friend for the last hour….how the writers misuse the term “negative reinforcement.” Sheldon uses “positive punishment” to “correct” the behavior in Leonard when he sprays him with water. This makes me wonder how much of what Sheldon talks about on the show regarding physics is actually accurate…

  11.   By Piotr Apows on Jan 2, 2012 | Reply

    Good topic, your analysis is great. :-)

  12.   By agnes on Jan 5, 2012 | Reply

    I dont agree with the author of this topic!

  13.   By logo on Jan 13, 2012 | Reply

    Good example. Agree.
    @ agnes: say why?

  14.   By joelZ on Feb 23, 2012 | Reply

    Thanks for all the information and facts.

  15.   By Imad on Jul 27, 2012 | Reply

    Came across this site randomly but as long as your discussing misconceptions, I would like to point out that the statement “Skinner argued that people do not need to think to learn” is itself a misconception, quite the contrary, his brand of behaviorism (radical behaviorism) and the science based of it (behavior analysis) were distinguished by the fact that Skinner considered thinking and language the most important parts of humans. The confusion arises because of two reasons, either confusing Watson’s methodological behaviorism which did try to exclude thoughts or misunderstanding Skinner’s writings because Skinner viewed thoughts as behavior (covert behavior) that needs an explanation in itself.

  16.   By Sean Cervone on Mar 19, 2013 | Reply

    I just saw this episode and I was shocked. Sheldon referred to spraying penny to change her behavior as negative reinforcement. I’m fact spraying her would be positive punishment. I am shocked in the error.

  17.   By Energie renouvelables on Jan 18, 2014 | Reply

    What an incredible longevity for this series, and continues to break records of hearings.

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