Psychology behind Training Rats to Play Basketball

Last year summer, the school of American Degree Program (ADP) of SEGi College Penang undertook an exciting project: Training lab rats to play basketball. Yes, you heard it right! The psychology department of the school of ADP initiated this project to demonstrate to psychology students and public on how psychology can shape and modify behaviours to achieve desired outcome, even in animals like rodents.

Incredible basketball skills are not something that comes natural in rats nor is something that they are born with, if so, how did the ADP team managed to get the rats to compete successfully in a mini basketball game? The answer to this lies in the psychological technique used by the department, called operant conditioning; a form of behavior modification attributed to the psychologist B.F. Skinner, which is primarily based on the consequences of one’s action, and in this case, based on the consequences of the rat’s action. For instance, it takes in average about two to three months to be able to train the rats to play basketball depending on the individuality of each rat, and the training consist of many small parts. Each time the rats produce the outcome desired by the trainer, such as touching the ball, or bringing the ball near the hoop, the rat is rewarded with an edible treat. In operant conditioning, this is referred to as positive reinforcement in which a desired behaviour is rewarded to increase the frequency of the behaviour. However, is the rat does not produce the outcome desired by the trainer, the rat is not rewarded with an edible treat. This is referred to as punishment, in which an undesired behaviour is not rewarded in order to decrease the frequency of such undesired behaviour.

This type of psychological behavioural training and modifications are not only for rats, but in fact is used in our everyday life to train humans and animals. The same technique and principle is used for parents to train their children, pet training, or even when employees are rewarded with incentives at work for their performance. All it takes is understanding psychology to make things happen.


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