Buy some carrots and skip the stick if you want your learning to stick - An experimental study on the retention of reward & punishment learning and the effect of context
Abstract: Operant conditioning is a psychological theory about learning through positive and negative reinforcement which has been researched for decades. However, some fundamental components of this theory have not yet been thoroughly researched, such as its interaction with long-term retention and context. These components are essential if we want to understand how operant conditioning applies in everyday life outside a human Skinner box. A computerized task was constructed based on reinforcement learning through operant conditioning. Data from 33 subjects were collected from two separate days of testing. During the first day, subjects learned associations between symbols and monetary outcomes under two different contexts. Five days later, memory retention was measured for these associations. In addition, a context manipulation was executed so that retention was tested in the same or switched context. The study found no significant difference for context the manipulation but a significant interaction between reinforcement type and memory retention. Therefore, our results suggest that context has no general influence on the retrieval of previously established operant responses, but further studies are needed. Long-term retention is proven to be worse after punishment than reward subsequent to reinforcement learning, in favor of the carrot over the stick. However, when measuring long-term retention after five days as in this study, there is a recovery of the negatively reinforced learning after exposure to retrieval cues.
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