Operant conditioning

November 30, 2007

Robert Genn

In case you haven't heard, "operant conditioning" is the use of
consequences to modify the occurrence and form of otherwise
voluntary behavior.

For example, rats, cats or dogs that perform a task are more
likely to repeat successfully if they're rewarded quickly after
the behavior. Sitting at my easel this morning, I was wondering
how operant conditioning might apply to creative folks.
Activities of the easel variety have built-in consequences,
some subtle, some obvious, some immediate and some
delayed--and, admit it, some are negative as well as positive.
Most of us will agree that the consequences often take the form
of satisfaction. It's satisfying to do something well, to work
things out, and to be appreciated for the performance. Some of
us also get satisfaction in the outright pleasing of
others--and being financially rewarded to boot.

Curiously, in the research of psychologist E.L. Thorndike,
positive consequences given for every performance were not as
effective a motivator as intermittent or infrequent rewards.
Apparently, satisfaction by reward wears off when it happens
too often. Rats can take only so much sugar. That thought
caused my brush to pause.

Consequences are of three main types: "Reinforcement" is a
consequence that causes a behavior to occur with greater
frequency. "Punishment" causes a behavior to occur with less
frequency. "Extinction," or lack of consequence, also causes
behavior to occur with less frequency. Thorndike found
behaviors and their consequences to be measurable.

Here's where the fun begins. Even though a lousy performance is
a form of punishment in itself, the rat can fool himself into
thinking he did okay. Humans, much more sophisticated than
rats, cats or dogs, can really do a job on themselves. However,
self-foolery, with all its nuances, may still be the key to
persistence and even happiness. Yep, we artists depend on our
illusions. The illusion of potential perfection, riding as it
does on our fragile egos, is the juice that keeps us running
our mazes. That being said, one of my more successful dealers
recently doubled his business by paying his artists every week.

Best regards,


PS: "Everything exists in some quantity and can therefore be
measured." (E.L. Thorndike, 1874-1949)

Esoterica: No reaction at all--extinction--wears away on the
individual until eventually the behavior grinds to a halt. This
is a danger for artists who struggle in a vacuum. Joining
clubs, exhibiting online, sending work away to distant
galleries, inviting trusted friends to come over and crit goes
part of the way, but it doesn't always ring the bell. Art is a
rare pursuit where participants have to learn to ring their own