Basic Concepts

Learning Activities (Click on hyperlink for worksheet activities.)


1.    Definitions

2.    Identify concepts from animal acts. (Refer to: Tina the Truck-Driving Chicken and Casey the Baseball Playing Chicken.)

3.    Provide your own examples

4.    Crossword puzzle

5.      Word search




Click on the thumbnail below to enlarge.





Behavior is any activity that an animal is performing at a given moment - "whatever the animal is doing." At the IQ-Zoo and in the projects developed by ABE, Inc., some of the behaviors performed by animals included pecking, pulling, and picking up and moving objects. The type of behavior that was of most interest to the folks at the IQ Zoo and ABE was operant behavior. Operant behavior operates upon the environment and changes it. It is also a type of behavior that is a function of its consequences - for example, it can be reinforced.  By guiding an animal’s behavior, it is possible to create the impression that the animal is doing just about anything that you want it to.  The crew at IQ Zoo could create the impression that chickens danced, that ducks played guitar, and that rabbits and cats played the piano. 

The exhibits in these pages capitalize upon animals' naturally occurring behaviors. For example, chickens often scratch the ground, peck at objects, and pull on objects. It is an easy matter to train the animals so that they will perform these types of behaviors in human-appearing situations. For example, in the Dancing Chicken exhibit, the chicken is taught to scratch on a round dance-platform to the sound of juke-box music. In this case, the chicken appears to be dancing. In the Postcard Vending Chicken, the chicken simply pulls a loop, and then the exhibit automatically delivers a postcard to the customer. In Bird-Brain (the tic-tac-toe playing chicken), the chicken is merely pecking at a disk every time the disk lights up. In Bird Brain, the chicken may appear to be playing tic-tac-toe, but it is merely pecking at a disk.

Click on the thumbnail below to enlarge.


A stimulus is an aspect of the environment (either external or internal to the organism) that that has the potential to control the behavior of the animal. The plural of stimulus is "stimuli." Often, the term “stimulus” refers to a change in the environment, such as a light coming on or the occurrence of a sound. In operant conditioning, a stimulus can occur before the behavior (making it a discriminative stimulus) or after the behavior (e.g., as a reinforcer). In this photo, the parakeet has been trained to pull on the small lever in the presence of the bulls-eye target. After the lever is pulled, food is delivered.



Click on the thumbnail below to enlarge.


A reinforcer is an event that follows a behavior and that increases the likelihood of that behavior occurring again. You might think of it as a “reward,” or a “positive stimulus.”  However, the technical term is “reinforcer.”  The reinforcer in the cup at the left is grain. For example, a parrot was trained to pedal a bicycle across a tightrope. Crossing the tightrope was reinforced with grain. This increased the probability that the parrot would pedal across the tightrope in the future. With dolphins, it is possible to reinforce jumping through a hoop by delivering a fish after the hoop-jump. To teach a rabbit to play the piano, every time the rabbit "paws" at the keys, the trainer delivers food, and the rabbit is more likely to paw at the keys in the future.





Reinforcement" is the process of delivering a reinforcer after the desired behavior. It is used to guide animal behavior toward a specific goal and to increase the frequency of that behavior. The process of strengthening a behavior by either presenting something rewarding or removing something unpleasant is reinforcement. The specific types of reinforcement (positive and negative) are described later in these web pages.



Click on the thumbnail below to enlarge.


The word operant has several meanings in the world of conditioning. It can refer to the class of behaviors that an organism exhibits that acts on the environment in some way (e.g., pecking) or it can refer to the entire trio of stimulus, behavior, and reinforcer (sometimes called the "three-term contingency"). In the case of this guitar-playing duck, the word “operant” can refer to the behavior of playing the guitar or to the three-term contingency of guitar (stimulus), plucking the strings (behavior), and food (reinforcer).



Click on the thumbnails below to enlarge.


Contingencies are the specific environmental conditions involved with reinforcing behavior. For instance, the pecking behavior for a chicken might be reinforced with food only when a green light flashes, but at no other time. The three-term contingency of the operant in this case would be:

     Flash of green light + pecking --> grain

The three-term contingency for the basketball-playing raccoon would be:

     Net and ball + dunk ball in net --> food




Click on the thumbnail below to enlarge.


Deprivation is the process of making a reinforcer more reinforcing by withholding it. To make food a reinforcer, you must first deprive the animal of food for a while. The Brelands found that, in most cases, it was only necessary to deprive the animal of food a few hours before performance time. The dolphin at the left was trained during regular feeding time. Because the dolphin had been deprived of food (fish) for a few hours, the fish acted as a reinforcer.



Click on the thumbnail below to enlarge.

Skinner Box

The Skinner Box (operant chamber) was an enclosed space that B. F. Skinner used to study operant behavior. It was an apparatus that usually involved, for instance, a light, a lever, and a food dispenser, all of which served as the set-up for the stimulus, behavior, and reinforcer. (In actuality, Skinner preferred to call these boxes “experimental chambers.”) Many of the exhibits at the I.Q. Zoo were “fancy Skinner boxes.” Here we see the Educated Hen exhibit (also called the capsule-vending chicken.) The box has been made to look like a toy dispenser. When the customer deposits a quarter in the slot, a plastic capsule with a toy rolls down the shute. When the capsule falls to the lowest part of the shoot, this serves as the stimulus for the chicken's pecking at the capsule. When the chicken pecks at the capsule, it rolls off the shoot, down the funnel, and into the hands of the customer. This chain of behaviors is reinforced with food.