Operant conditioning (A complete guide)

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through conditioning, individuals make an association between a specific behavior and a consequence.

What is operant conditioning?

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Operant conditioning (sometimes known as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that works through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through conditioning, an association is formed between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior which gives rise to extrinsic motivation.

For example, imagine that a rat presses a blue button and receives a food pellet as a reward, but receives a light electrical shock if he presses a red button. As a result of the reward and punishment, he learns to press the blue button while avoiding the red button. 

But operant conditioning doesn’t only take place in experimental settings with animals, it also plays a role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and penalty turn up nearly daily in natural settings similarly as in additional structured settings like the schoolroom or medical care sessions.

Operant conditioning, including classical conditioning is a part of the psychology’s branch, behavioral psychology.

Let’s take a more in-depth look into operant conditioning and how it was discovered, the impact it had on science, and the way it has influenced behaviors.

What is the history of operant conditioning? 

Operant conditioning was coined by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, which is why operant conditioning is sometimes referred to as Skinnerian learning. As a behaviorist, Skinner believed that we should not look internally to figure out the causes of human behavior, but instead look at solely the external, evident causes.  

Throughout the first part of the 20th-century, behaviorism had become a significant force in psychology. The ideas of John B. Watson dominated this school of thought as well. Watson studied the principles of conditioning, once actually saying that he can take any individual despite their background and train them to be anything he wanted.

While the first behaviorists had targeted their interests in associative learning, Skinner was fascinated by how the results of people’s actions influenced their behavior.

Skinner used the term operative to mean “active behavior that operates upon the surroundings to come up with consequences.” In other words, Skinner’s theory explains how we tend to acquire a variety of learned behaviors that we  exhibit each day.

His theory was heavily influenced by the work of a man named Edward Thorndike, who had created the law of impact. In line with this principle, actions that are followed by positive outcomes will occur more frequently. In contrast, those followed by undesirable outcomes will occur less frequently.

Operant conditioning depends on a relatively easy premise – actions that are followed by positive reinforcements are more likely to be repeated. If you tell a joke about a shaggy dog at school and everyone laughs, you may be a lot more likely to tell that joke again in the future. If you raise your hand to ask a question and your teacher praises your polite behavior, you may be more likely to raise your hand each time you have a question or comment.  

Types of Behaviors:

Skinner distinguished between 2 different kinds of behaviors: 

Respondent behavior occurs reflexively, like lifting your hand back from a hot stove or jerking your leg once the doctor hits the hammer on your knee. You do not learn these behaviours; they merely occur involuntarily.

Operant behaviours, on the other hand, are learned behaviors that we are consciously aware of, but the results of the behaviors dictate whether or not they will occur again. The consequences of our actions are a significant part of the training. 

While conditioning might account for respondent behaviours, Skinner realized that it doesn’t account for a lot of learning. Instead, Skinner said that conditioning is a more important form of learning. 

Skinner created a tool called a Skinner box. The chamber was a box that could hold a small animal like a rat or a bird. The box also contained a bar or key that the animal could press to receive a reward. 

What are the different kinds of operant conditioning? 

Reinforcement is any event that strengthens or will increase the behavior it follows. There are 2 types of reinforcers:

Ø  Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are given when the action done is “correct”. Positive reinforcers strengthen a behavior, such as praise or an immediate reward. For instance, if you are doing a good job at work and your manager offers you a bonus, you will likely continue working hard and doing a good job. 

These reinforcers will motivate you to fulfill, what is called as Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Ø  Negative reinforcers involve the removal of a reward which will decrease an action or behavior. For example, if you do the dishes (behavior) in order to stop your mother from yelling at you (negative reinforcer), then your mother’s yelling is negatively reinforcing the behavior. 

In each of these cases of reinforcement, the behavior will increase. 

Punishment is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in a behavior. There are 2 types of punishment:

Ø  The positive punishment, generally named as a penalty by application, presents unfavorable events or outcomes to decrease a response. Spanking a child for wrongdoing is an example of a positive punishment. 

Ø  Negative punishment, also called penalty by removal, happens when a positive event or outcome is removed when a behaviour occurs. Taking away a child’s computer game following wrongdoing is an example of a negative penalty.

In each of these cases of punishment, the behavior decreases.

Schedules of Reinforcement:

Imagine a rat in a Skinner box. In conditioning, if no food pellet is delivered straight away once the lever is pressed then after many tries the rat stops pressing the lever (how long would somebody still go to work if their boss stopped paying them?). This is called extinction of a behavior. 

Behaviorists discovered that entirely different patterns (or schedules) of reinforcement had different effects on the speed of learning and extinction: 

1. The Response Rate – the speed at that the rat pressed the lever (i.e., how hard the rat worked).

2. The Extinction Rate – the speed at that lever pressing dies out (i.e., how  long the rat gave up).

Skinner identified several different schedules of reinforcement that impacted the operant conditioning process:

Ø  Continuous reinforcement involves delivering reinforcement each time a response happens. In this case, learning tends to occur relatively quickly. Nevertheless, the response rate is low. Extinction happens quickly once reinforcement is stopped.

Ø  Fixed-ratio schedules are a kind of partial reinforcement. Responses are strengthened only once a selected range of responses has occurred. This usually ends up in a reasonably steady response rate.

Ø  Fixed-interval schedules are another type of partial reinforcement. Reinforcement happens only once a precise interval of time has progressed. Response rates stay fairly steady and begin to increase once the reinforcement has been delivered.

Ø  Variable-ratio schedules are a kind of partial reinforcement that involves reinforcing a behavior once a varied range of responses occurs. This reinforcement schedule usually yields high response rates and slow extinction rates.

Ø  Variable-interval schedules are the ultimate type of partial reinforcement Skinner described. This schedule involves delivering reinforcement once a variable quantity of your time has progressed. This also tends to result in a fast response rate and slow extinction rate.

Examples of conditioning:

Conditioning happens all the time in the world around us. Think about when children finish school work and earn an award from a parent or teacher, or employees at a job receive praise or promotions.

Some additional samples of conditioning in action:

Ø  If your child acts out during a searching trip, you might offer him a snack to convince him to stop. As a result, he might be more likely to act out again in the future to receive another snack.

Ø  After performing in a community theatre play, you receive an applause from the audience. This acts as a positive reinforcing stimulus which will result in you wanting to take part in additional performance roles.

Ø  You train your dog to fetch by providing him praise and a pat on the head whenever he performs the behavior properly.

Ø  A faculty member tells students that if they get good group grades all semester, then they do not need to take the final exam. By removing an unpleasant event (the final exam) students are negatively reinforced to attend class often.

Ø  If you fail to hand in an important project on time, your boss becomes angry and berates your performance in front of your co-workers. This acts as a positive punishment, making it less likely that you will turn in an assignment late again.

Ø  A teenage girl doesn’t clean up her room as she was asked. Thus her parents took her phone for the remainder of the day. This can be an example of a negative punishment where a stimulus is removed to decrease a behavior. 

Ø  Children in a classroom are told that they are going to lose recess privileges if they speak without raising their hand. This potential for a penalty could cause a decrease in speaking out of turn. 

In a number of these examples, the expectation or chance of rewards causes an increase in behavior, and the removal of a positive outcome or negative outcome decreases or stops undesirable behaviors. 

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about operant conditioning: 

What is conditioning in psychology?

Operant conditioning (sometimes named as instrumental conditioning) is a technique of learning that happens through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through conditioning, the association is formed between a behaviour and a consequence for that behaviour.

Who supported operant conditioning?

B. F. Skinner, a noted American psychologist- is usually considered the founding father of conditioning. However, the theory’s true father was Edward Thorndike. 

What are the four kinds of operative conditioning?

There are four varieties of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, and extinction.

In this article we discussed the principle of operant conditioning and different reinforcers that are put in place to increase or decrease a behavior.  

Good Boy!: Using Positive Psychology to Train Yourself and the Humans Around You

This book by John Raven explores how positive psychology can be used to help our fellow humans and animals be all-around better. For example, both people and dogs like being praised, so we can use this as a strategy to “train” ourselves and others. 

Theory Workbook #2: Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory & the Basics of Training a Simple Target Behavior

In this workbook, Holli Willibey teaches you how to explore your own habits, learn about others, and “train just about anyone to do just about anything.” This book uses the Hollitown Learning Theory to help you learn about operant conditioning. 

About Behaviorism by B.F. Skinner (1974)

Written by the father of behaviorism himself, B.F. Skinner, this book goes into depth about the philosophy or behaviorism. If you want to learn about operant conditioning from the guy who coined the term, this book is for you. 


o   Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.

o   Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement.

o   Kohler, W. (1924). “The mentality of apes”. London: Routledge & Kegan, Paul.

o   Skinner, B. F. (1938). “The Behavior of organisms”: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

o   Skinner, B. F. (1948). “Superstition’ in the pigeon”. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172

o   Skinner, B. F. (1951). “How to teach animals”. Freeman.

o   Skinner, B. F. (1953). “Science and human behaviour”. SimonandSchuster.com.

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