Instrumental Conditioning

Instrumental Conditioning or Operant Conditioning was studied by Edward Thorndike, John Watson, and B.F. Skinner. Instrumental Conditioning is different with Classical Conditioning. While Classical Conditioning studies about the relationships between two stimulis, Instrumental Conditioning obserses the association between a behavior and consequences. There are four consequences related with the behavior: “Something Good can start or be presented; Something Good can end or be taken away; Something Bad can start or be presented; Something Bad can end or be taken away.” (Stacy Braslau-Schneck, 1998). Normally, with either human beings or with animals, the consequences must be immediate and related directly to the behavior. A reward may be presented if the behavior is matched with the designs of the experimenter. On the other hand, a punishment may be applied if the behavior does not comply with the experimenter’s ideas. Rewards are considered reinforcements. Punishment are called punisher. Those associations adjust the behavior more or less depending on each case. In our real life, almost everyday, we experience the Instrumental Conditioning many times.
After the Fall of South Vietnam, we, all officers of the collapsed regime were forced into places called Re-Education camps. Indeed, the camps were the Brain-Washing camps or Hard-Labored Camps where we were taught to be subdued to the new regime, the Communism Socialist Government directed by the Communist Party. In those camps, we had to work from hand to mouth because the food supplied to us were limited to spoiled rice that was left by guerillas in deep jungles, Bobo (a kind of seed that used to feed horses), yam, and spoiled sweet potatoes. Exactly as Terry pointed out, "Reward should be earned through hard work." (Terry, 2006. p.120) If we work hard enough, we would get little food enough to survive. If we refused to work, they would not provide food for us. Worse than that, we would be killed without any trial at all. Punishments were applied everyday. The method of S-R was strictly observed. Work hard – More rice; Work less – less rice; No work – Punishment or killed. The Communists divided us officers into three categories. Strongmen who could saw big trees and cut into pieces to make furniture for the guards received about 300 grams of rice daily. Weak men who only worked on fields planning vegetables for the guards received 200 grams (or less) of rice. The protesters received nothing besides a giant military container called “Connex”. It was a 4’ W x 4’L x 6’H iron box. They had to live in there without food or water. In daytime, the box was a hot stove. When the nights came, the box changed into an ice-box. Cold and Hot exchanges with each other until the prisoner became a soft vegetable that softly solicited “food, water, please!”
As Terry stated, "The point is that organism, both rats and humans, do sometimes act out of habit and in accordance with S- R theory." (Terry. 2006, p. p.120). The prisoners in brain-washing camps had to change their behaviors in order to survive.
Before all the cut-offs of military supports from Alliances, South Vietnamese Officers fought with courage and the hope that they would wipe out all Communists from their territories. They could fight with the ratio 1-3, that meant, a South Vietnamese company could fight as well as three Communist companies. (The War Report showed that 500,000 South Vietnamese were killed while more than 1,500,000 soldiers of the North were dead). However, after the treaty signed in February 1973, they seemed less brave because they recognized that they did not have enough ammunition to fire. All military supports were reduced to the minimum. Even gas for tanks, trucks, and jeeps. Then, when they were in Brain-Washing camps, they knew that there was no hope for any retaliation. Their behavior changed “in accordance with S-R theory.” Ninety-nine per cent officers accepted the situations. The World had abandoned them for good. Without hope, they just did what the guards asked them to do. No arguments. Except sometimes, an officer suddenly raised voice and was killed brutally. The consequence (R) arrived immediately.
There were some issues that we needed to clarify here. The application of Reinforcements and Punishments were unbalanced. Depending on the tempers of the Communist guards, the prisoners were treated differently. Most of Communists were illiterate. They did not know how to read a written order, therefore, they treated prisoners as they liked to do. Sometimes, a Company Political Advisor fought against a Company commander just because they did not comprehend the same thing. Being lived under such conditions, many prisoners died without reasonable cause. Nevertheless, there was a common rule that they all agreed: The lives of political prisoners were less valued than their dogs. The guard could apply the reinforcements or punishments flexibly within just a blink of eyes.
In positive reinforcement ( PR), also known as reward training, the emission of an operant response was followed by stimuli called positive reinforcers that make the actions that produce them more probable. Speaking in short, Good was Added - Behavior increased. As stated previously, if the prisoners worked hard without complaining, they would receive some food.
a-Primary Positive Reinforcement: Things happened naturally. Prisoner needed not to learn much. Every morning, a guard came and gave order. “Hey! Five men standing here, pick up shit and fertilize the vegetable. Six others, make coal. Ten there, dig a new water well.” That was simple. Prisoners just followed the orders and would have some kinds of food.
b-Secondary Positive Reinforcement: Prisoners had to learn how to chop a tree, how to dig a well, how to build a house for guards. If they completed their work on time, they would receive a better meal.
2-Negative Reinforcement (NR): Negative reinforcement was a training procedure wherein operant behaviors terminated or postponed the delivery of aversive stimuli. Response probability increased. Speaking in other words, Bad was taken out - Behavior increased. The torture was stopped when the protester stopped protesting. Few days in “Connex” were cut off when the prisoner agreed not to argue with the guard anymore.
3-Positive Punishment (PP): When a response resulted in the production of an aversive stimulus, the conditioning procedure was called punishment. The effect of punishment was to suppress responses that had led to it. General speaking, Bad was Added - Behavior decreased. The prisoner got shot if he argued, complained, or tried to escape.
4-Negative Punishment (NP): Good was taken out - Behavior decreased.
Food was taken out due to his arguing with a guard. Free time was stopped when a prisoner refused to work.
In fact, Instrumental Conditioning or Operant Conditioning is applied in the whole country Vietnam. The worst of it is there is no explanation to the people at all. The nation leaders just give out some rules and force the whole country to follow. No question allowed. That is why, until today, Vietnam is still one among the poorest country in the world in spite of all glamorous views that visitors can see at the first glance at the big cities. Psychological Warfare theories, in Vietnam, perhaps, are the most useful weapons that the Communists are using successfully.


People and Discoveries. Retrieved on April 21, 2008 from:
Stacey Braslau-Schneck. Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning, (1998). Retrieved on April 21, 2008 from:
W. Scott Terry, Learning and Memory: Basic Principles, Processes, and Procedures, (2006). Third Edition. Published by Allyn and Bacon