Respondent Versus Operant Behavior

Although it is possible to tell operant behavior from respondent behavior in a number of ways, these processes occur concurrently and blend almost in-distinguishably. For example, the administration of a drug may elicit certain behavioral and physiological responses such as increased heart rate and changes in perception that are respondent in nature; stimuli associated with the administration of that drug may also acquire some of the same ability to elicit those responses. If the administration of the drug followed a response and if the subsequent frequency of that response increased, then the drug also could be designated a reinforcer of the operant response. Thus, these important behavioral processes frequently occur simultaneously and must be considered carefully in experimental research, and also in attempting to understand the control of behavior by abused drugs. The primary distinctions between operant and respondent behavior now appear to be the way these behaviors are produced and the possible differential susceptibility to modification by consequent events. Respondent behavior is produced by the presentation of eliciting stimuli; characteristic features of these behaviors are rather easily changed by altering the features of the eliciting stimulus such as its intensity, duration, or frequency of presentation. Under all of these conditions, however, the response remains essentially the same.

In contrast, operant behavior depends to a large extent on its consequences, and with this process, complex behavior can develop from quite simple relationships. One has only to view current behavior as an instance of the organism's previous history acting together with more immediate environmental consequences to gain some appreciation for the continuity and modification of behavior in time. Current behavior is often exceedingly difficult to understand because of the many prior influences or consequences that no longer operate but which may leave residual effects. The effects of a particular consequence or intervention can be quite different depending on the behavior that exists at the time the event occurs. An individual's prior history, then, is important not only because it has shaped present behavior but also because it will undoubtedly determine the specific ways in which the individual responds to the current environment. Accordingly, prior behavioral experience can have a marked effect in determining how a drug will change behavior.

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