Renewal After the Punishment of Free Operant Behavior

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Abstract

Three experiments examined the role of context in punishment learning. In Experiment 1, rats were trained to lever press for food in Context A and then punished for responding in Context B (by presenting response-contingent footshock). Punishment led to complete suppression of the response. However, when responding was tested (in extinction) in Contexts A and B, a strong renewal of responding occurred in Context A. In Experiment 2, renewal also occurred when initial reinforcement occurred in Context A, punishment occurred in Context B, and testing occurred in a new context (Context C). In both experiments, behavioral suppression and renewal were not observed in groups that received noncontingent (yoked) footshocks in Context B. In Experiment 3, 2 responses (lever press and chain pull) were separately reinforced in Contexts A and B and then punished in the opposite context. Although the procedure equated the contexts on their association with reinforcement and punishment, renewal of each response was observed when it was tested in its nonpunished context. The contexts also influenced response choice. Overall, the results suggest that punishment is specific to the context in which it is learned, and establish that its context-specificity does not depend on a simple association between the context and shock. Like extinction, punishment may involve learning to inhibit a specific response in a specific context. Implications for theories of punishment and for understanding the cessation of problematic operant behavior (e.g., drug abuse) are discussed.

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