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The Magic of Successive ApproximationYears ago, the researcher, B.F. Skinner, constructed a box in which he put a laboratory rat. He used this “Skinner Box” to study and test his theories on learning. In his model, called operant conditioning, learning was achieved merely through manipulation of the subject’s environment. No other communication or internal thought processes were necessary.

Inside the box was a lever which, when depressed, would administer a food pellet to the animal. This was the reward for certain desired behaviors. Over time, using just these food pellets and a larger box, he and his colleagues were able to teach the rat to do an amazing number of tricks all chained together in a kind of circus act.

The rat would first roll a ball into a small trough with its nose then jump on a tread mill. After a few seconds on the treadmill, it would climb a ladder then pull a chain with its mouth which would turn on a light. Then it would come back down the ladder, run over to the food lever, depress it and receive its pellet reward. It was pretty impressive.

People would ask, “How did you get the rat to do all those things?” and “How would a rat ever think of pushing a ball in a trough with its nose anyway?”

How did Skinner accomplish this?

Most people didn’t realize this but Skinner taught the rat these tricks in reverse order. The hardest trick was getting the rat to depress the lever. Just waiting for the rat to do this might have taken days or weeks as it was not a natural rat behavior. He sped things up by using a remarkable technique called, successive approximation.

Skinner waited for the rat to just look in the direction of the lever then quickly dropped a food pellet in front of it. The rat ate it and soon repeated the “looking” behavior that preceded the food… and was rewarded again. After a while Skinner waited until the rat not only looked toward the lever but moved his foot in that direction. Then, the pellet was quickly given. Eventually, using this method of successive approximation, he got the rat to walk over to the lever, depress it, and get the food. To add the next behavior, he waited to give the food until the rat first looked in the direction of the ladder. A look and then a step in the ladder’s direction, etc. was followed by food from the lever. Eventually all the desired behaviors were linked together this way always followed by a food pellet.

Here’s something else that is critical—he never punished the rats for wrong behavior. He just ignored it and rewarded the behavior he wanted. Learning was fast and painless and the tasks were increasingly complex.

What does successive approximation have to do with human relationships?

Everything! We often expect perfection from those around us and criticize less than perfect behavior. Both of these things make their learning how to please us much more difficult if not impossible. By the way, the “food pellet” for us is acknowledgment and appreciation.

We’d get so much more cooperation if we rewarded any approximation, any movement in the direction of what we wanted. Instead of criticizing the one thing that was wrong e.g., “This isn’t the printer cartridge I asked you get!” or “You put the fax in down!” appreciate the people around you for the things that were done right. You’ll get someone who thinks, “Next time, I’ll do it even better!”

Successive approximation means appreciating and acknowledging any movement in the right direction. It allows for the fastest learning and preserves relationship by refraining from criticism, punishment or attack. You’ll be amazed at what behaviors your employees are capable of when they are learned this way.


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