Crying Babies

Volume 1, Issues 1–2, 10 December 2012, Pages 43–48

Robert Epstein

Answers to a final-exam question about slapping a crying baby provide a good indication of just how well students understand the difference between classical and operant conditioning. Unfortunately, the author has found that relatively few students in introductory courses on learning or behavior are able to answer this question correctly. This may be true because of how instructors and textbooks teach about operant and classical conditioning, and it may also be true because of the subtle ways in which these procedures overlap. The exam question, which is theoretical, is related to a practical problem that parents of infants face every day: when a baby is crying, should we ignore the crying or pick up and comfort the baby? Although this issue is still debated among parenting experts and although parents rarely behave optimally in this situation, behavior analysis offers a clear and unequivocal solution to the problem.

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