Psychology in Practice: Defining the Contours of Shaping in Behavioral Approaches

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Updated: Nov 17, 2023
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As we wade through the sea of psychological terms and theories, the concept of shaping emerges as a fascinating island worth exploring. Shaping, in the realm of psychology, is far more than molding minds; it is a systematic method for teaching complex behaviors. Rather than expecting a leap from beginner to expert, shaping allows us to appreciate the gradual progression of learning, an artful dance between stimulus and response.

This psychological tool is an instrumental technique derived from the behaviorist school of thought, particularly operant conditioning, made famous by B.

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F. Skinner. It is the process where desired behaviors are reinforced step by step, using successive approximations to guide an individual toward a specific behavior. Picture a sculptor with a block of marble: each chip is deliberate, with the final form emerging through a series of subtle changes. Similarly, shaping carves out new behaviors by rewarding closer and closer approximations of the target behavior.

Consider the example of teaching a child to tie their shoes—a task we may take for granted as adults but one that is complex for young learners. We wouldn’t scold a child for not mastering the skill immediately. Instead, we would encourage any movement towards the end goal: perhaps first by picking up the laces, then by holding them correctly, and so on. Each small success is met with praise or a tangible reward, reinforcing the behavior until the child learns the complete sequence.

Shaping is not limited to childhood learning; it is equally applicable in therapeutic settings. A therapist might use shaping to help a patient with social anxiety. Initially, they might reward the patient for making eye contact for a few seconds. Gradually, the expected behaviors become more challenging, building up to having a conversation with a stranger. This meticulous approach allows for manageable increments of progress, acknowledging the complexities of human behavior and the time it takes to alter ingrained patterns.

The beauty of shaping lies in its versatility. It does not discriminate between teaching a pigeon to peck a button or assisting a person in overcoming a phobia. In both cases, it utilizes the same fundamental principle: reinforce behaviors that are increasingly similar to the desired one. This principle is also evident in real-world applications beyond the therapist’s office or the psychologist’s lab. From dog training to teaching new skills in the workplace, shaping provides a structure for learning and behavior modification that can be adapted to virtually any scenario.

Shaping acknowledges that behavior is not a binary state; it’s not simply “correct” or “incorrect.” It exists along a continuum, and each step toward the desired end-state is valuable. This philosophy could well be applied to our broader societal goals. If we shaped societal behaviors, rewarding each step towards more sustainable living or greater compassion, what might we achieve?

The theoretical elegance of shaping does not mean it is without challenges. Patience is required in abundance, as is the ability to precisely define each incremental step and the appropriate reinforcement. Timing is crucial, as is consistency. The shaper must be an astute observer and an agile adjuster of plans based on the subject’s response. This adaptability underscores the subtlety and skill involved in effectively using shaping as a tool for behavior change.

In essence, shaping in psychology is an insightful reminder of how change is a process, not a spontaneous occurrence. It’s a testament to the resilience of both the human mind and spirit. It requires commitment from the teacher or therapist and a willingness to learn from the learner. Through shaping, the seemingly insurmountable can become attainable, one small victory at a time. The definition of shaping, therefore, is more than a mere entry in a psychology textbook; it is a testament to the incremental and achievable nature of personal growth and learning—a principle that holds profound power in both clinical practice and daily life.

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Psychology in Practice: Defining the Contours of Shaping in Behavioral Approaches. (2023, Nov 17). Retrieved from