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Operant Conditioning Examples: How it Works

Operant conditioning is a type of associative learning that utilizes reinforcement or punishment to teach or modify a behavior. The consequences of a behavior can be used to either increase or decrease the occurrence of that behavior.

Examples of operant conditioning include a rat pressing a lever to receive a food pellet and a child receiving a sticker for completing chores, both of which demonstrate reinforcement shaping a behavior.

Operant conditioning is a learning process in which the consequences of an action determine the likelihood that the behavior will occur again in the future. This type of learning by association involves using reinforcement or punishment to either increase or decrease the chances that a behavior will occur again. 

In this article, learn more about the history of operant conditioning and how it works. Explore factors that influence the operant conditioning process, look at examples of this type of learning in action, and consider some ways that operant conditioning can be used in real life.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

It can be helpful to look at some operant conditioning examples in order to better understand how the process works. While Skinner described many examples of how operant conditioning could be used to train behavior in a lab setting under controlled conditions, operant conditioning also happens all the time in real-world learning situations.

Operant Conditioning Examples in Daily Life

You can probably think of a number of different examples of how operant conditioning is used in your everyday life. Some good real-world examples include:

  • Rewarding oneself with a favorite treat (positive reinforcement) after completing a workout.
  • Setting up a system where money is donated to a charity for every day a goal is missed (negative punishment).
  • Giving treats or praise (positive reinforcement) when a dog follows a command.
  • Withdrawing attention or treats (negative punishment) when a pet displays unwanted behavior, such as jumping on furniture.
  • Receiving compliments from friends when wearing a new outfit.
  • Getting a high score in a video game after practicing for hours.
  • Feeling relaxed after a warm bath at the end of a long day.
  • Feeling satisfied after eating a delicious meal.
  • Feeling refreshed after drinking a cup of coffee in the morning.
  • Smiling at someone and receiving a smile in return.
  • Feeling motivated to exercise after seeing progress in physical fitness.
  • Feeling happy when a favorite song comes on the radio.
  • Feeling proud after receiving a diploma or certificate for completing a course.
  • Feeling excited when receiving a notification of a new message or email.
  • Feeling relieved after finding a lost item.
  • Feeling confident after receiving positive feedback on a presentation.
  • Feeling loved and appreciated when receiving hugs from family members.

Operant Conditioning Examples in School

Operant conditioning can be an effective tool for increasing certain behaviors in the classroom, including encouraging good behavior and increasing achievement. Homework incentives, reward charts, and encouraging behaviors with praise are a few examples.

Some more specific examples of using operant conditioning in education include.

  • Giving a child a favorite treat once this homework is done each night would be an example of continuous reinforcement. If the reward or incentive is given every time the behavior is successfully performed, this would be an example of positive reinforcement.
  • Rewards charts used in classrooms are an example of operant conditioning on a fixed-ratio schedule. Once a child fills up their chart by performing the desired behavior, they are rewarded. 
  • If a teacher wants to encourage students to engage in a behavior, they might utilize praise as positive reinforcement. For example, after a student raises their hand to ask a question, the teacher might praise them for following classroom rules.
  • Offering praise or rewards for completing homework assignments on time.
  • Allowing extra recess or free time for good behavior in class.
  • Giving verbal warnings or detention for disruptive behavior.
  • Providing extra credit opportunities for students who excel in class.
  • Using a token economy system where students earn points for positive behavior that can be exchanged for rewards.
  • Offering opportunities for leadership roles or special privileges to students who demonstrate responsibility and leadership skills.
  • Implementing a sticker chart or reward system for meeting academic goals.
  • Using peer tutoring or group study sessions as a reward for students who consistently participate and contribute in class.
  • Providing positive reinforcement through verbal encouragement or written notes for improvement in academic performance.
  • Using a points-based system where students earn points for participation, completing assignments, and demonstrating understanding of the material, which can be exchanged for rewards or privileges.

Operant Conditioning Examples at Work

Operant conditioning can also be useful in the workplace. Work bonuses are an example. Employers also use operant conditioning to encourage employees to be productive. For example, employees might be able to earn monetary rewards in the form of bonuses by meeting specific production targets. 

More examples of operant conditioning in the workplace include:

  • Providing bonuses or commissions for achieving sales targets.
  • Offering praise or recognition in team meetings for outstanding performance.
  • Giving extra vacation days or time off as a reward for completing projects ahead of schedule.
  • Issuing verbal warnings or written reprimands for violating company policies.
  • Offering professional development opportunities or training programs for employees who consistently meet or exceed expectations.
  • Implementing performance-based promotions or advancement opportunities within the company.
  • Utilizing peer recognition programs where employees nominate each other for exceptional work.
  • Offering flexible work arrangements or remote work options as a reward for consistently meeting productivity goals.
  • Implementing a profit-sharing program where employees receive a portion of the company’s profits based on performance.
  • Providing constructive feedback and coaching to help employees improve their skills and performance.

Operant Conditioning Examples in Parenting

Parents can also utilize different types of operant conditioning to help encourage good behaviors in their children. A few examples include:

  • Giving praise and hugs to a child for completing homework without being reminded.
  • Allowing extra screen time for good behavior or completing chores.
  • Implementing a time-out for a child who is misbehaving.
  • Taking away a privilege, such as dessert or TV time, for not following rules.
  • Giving a sticker or small reward for using manners at the dinner table.
  • Ignoring tantrums to discourage attention-seeking behavior.
  • Allowing a child to choose a fun activity after finishing their chores.
  • Setting up a token economy system where children earn points for desired behaviors that can be exchanged for rewards.
  • Praising effort and improvement, not just the end result, to encourage persistence.
  • Creating a bedtime routine with calming activities to signal when it’s time to sleep.

How Operant Conditioning Was Discovered

The operant conditioning process was first described by an American psychologist named B. F. Skinner, a behaviorist. Behaviorism was a school of thought in psychology that suggested that all human behavior could be understood in terms of conditioning processes rather than taking internal thoughts and feelings into account. 

Ivan Pavlov discovered the classical conditioning process, which had an important impact on behaviorism and was heralded by other behaviorists such as John B. Watson. While Skinner agreed that learning through unconscious associations was an important part of learning, he also noted that this couldn’t account for all types of learning. 

Classical conditioning is primarily concerned with what happens before a behavior. Instead, Skinner was interested in how the consequences that follow a behavior affect the learning process.

As Skinner developed his theory, he developed a number of tools to help him study how consequences affected behavior. One tool he frequently used was a Skinner box, in which an animal subject could press a lever to receive a reward. He would then record the rate of responding (i.e., how often the lever was pressed) to determine how well and how quickly a response was learned.

How Operant Conditioning Works

Skinner’s operant conditioning, also known as Skinnerian conditioning or instrumental conditioning, was based on Edward Thorndike’s law of effect. The law of effect states that behaviors followed by desirable outcomes are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors followed by undesirable outcomes are less likely to be repeated. 

According to Skinner, an “operant” is any active behavior that affects the environment and leads to consequences.

In operant conditioning, reinforced actions become more likely to occur again in the future, while punished become less likely to occur again.

Operant conditioning works by associating voluntary behaviors with consequences, such as rewards or punishments, which subsequently influence the likelihood of those behaviors recurring, as demonstrated by numerous operant conditioning examples

Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Reinforcement is any event that increases the likelihood that a response will occur again. Skinner observed that two different forms of reinforcement could be used to increase the chances that behavior would occur in the future.

Reinforcement functions by increasing the probability of a behavior being repeated when a desirable consequence, such as praise or a reward, follows the behavior, as evidenced by operant conditioning examples.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a desirable reward or outcome. For example, offering a treat or praise following an action will make it more likely that the action will occur again.

For example, a rat in a Skinner box might receive a food pellet as a reward every time it presses a lever. The first time the behavior happens, it might be an accident. The rat might bump the lever and receive the reward. After this happens a few times, the rat quickly learns that it would receive a reward every time it pushes the lever.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves taking away an undesirable outcome after a behavior. Skinner utilized negative reinforcement by adding an unpleasant electrical current to his Skinner box. In order to turn off the current, the rats had to press the lever.

Other real-world examples of negative reinforcement include cleaning your room or putting away your things before your roommate gets home, which means you’ll avoid an argument. Removing the unwanted outcome reinforces the behavior (cleaning up). 

Primary vs. Conditioned Reinforcers

Different kinds of reinforcers may produce differing effects. Primary reinforcers are things that naturally reinforce because they fulfill some need. This can include such things as food and water.

Conditioned reinforcers are things that become associated with primary reinforcers through learning. Money is an example of a conditioned reinforcer. Because we have learned that it can be used to acquire primary reinforcers, it becomes reinforcing on its own.

Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Punishment involves anything that decreases a behavior. Like reinforcement, there are two different types of punishment.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment involves the addition of an adverse outcome to decrease a behavior. Spanking is an example of positive punishment.

In this context, it’s important to remember that punishment doesn’t mean “good.” Instead, it means that something aversive has been added to the situation.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment involves taking away a desirable outcome to make a behavior less likely. An example of negative punishment would be taking away a child’s favorite toy because they hit their sibling.

Punishment vs. Reinforcement: Which Is Better?

While punishment can be useful, it is generally less effective than reinforcement when it comes to learning. This is because reinforcement offers information and feedback about which behaviors are desirable.

Punishment can tell someone what they shouldn’t do, but it doesn’t provide any information about what should be done instead. 

Punishment can also lead to undesirable effects. For example, it may lead to increased aggression or fear that might generalize to other situations or stimuli.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Through his research, Skinner also discovered that there were factors that could impact the strength and rate of response. What he found was that the timing and frequency of reinforcement affect how a subject responds.

These are referred to as schedules of reinforcement. Two primary types of schedules can be used; continuous reinforcement and partial reinforcement. 

Continuous Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Continuous reinforcement involves rewarding a behavior every single time it occurs. This schedule is often used when a response is first being learned. It produces a steady but slow rate of response. If the reinforcement is withdrawn, extinction tends to occur quite quickly.

Partial Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Partial reinforcement involves providing reinforcement periodically. Some of the different types of partial reinforcement schedules include:

Fixed-Ratio Schedule

In this schedule, reinforcement is given after a set number of responses. For example, a reward would be given after every five responses. This leads to a steady response rate that tends to slow slightly immediately after the reward is given. 

Fixed-Interval Schedule

This schedule involves delivering reinforcement after a fixed amount of time has passed. For example, a reward might be given every five minutes. This schedule leads to a steady rate of response that increases right before the reward is given, but slows briefly after the reinforcement is given.

Variable-Ratio Schedule

In this schedule, reinforcement occurs after a variable number of responses. This type of schedule leads to a high response rate that is also resistant to extinction. 

Variable-Interval Schedule

In this schedule, reinforcement is given after a varying amount of time has passed. This schedule also tends to produce a strong response rate resistant to extinction.

Applications for Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning can have a variety of real-world applications when it comes to teaching or modifying behavior. This includes education, where teachers use positive reinforcement like praise or rewards to encourage desired behaviors, and in therapy, where behavior modification techniques are employed to address maladaptive behaviors and foster positive changes in individuals.

Some practical operant conditioning examples include the following:

Classroom Behavior

Operant conditioning can help manage student behavior in classroom settings. Teachers can utilize reinforcement and consequences to encourage students to engage in positive behaviors such as being on time, turning in assignments, and paying attention in class.

Behavioral Therapy

Operant conditioning is commonly used in behavioral therapies that modify behaviors, either by encouraging desirable behaviors or discouraging undesirable behaviors. Some strategies might include:

Token Economies

A token is a system that utilizes tokens that can be exchanged for a reward. For example, a child might get a sticker every time they engage in the desired behavior, and they can later exchange those stickers to earn a treat.

Behavior Modeling

An observer might watch a model engage in a behavior and note the consequences of those actions. Seeing the model being rewarded will increase the behavior while seeing the model being punished will decrease the behavior.

Contingency Management

This approach rewards people for evidence of positive behavioral change. It is often used in substance use treatment, in which people may be rewarded for showing evidence that they have not been using substances. For example, they might receive vouchers for retail goods or financial compensation if they pass a drug screening.

Examples of Operant Conditioning Study Questions

Who discovered operant conditioning?

B.F. Skinner was the behavioral psychologist who first described the operant conditioning process.

How is operant conditioning different from classical conditioning?

There are a number of key differences between classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves involuntary behaviors and creating associations between a stimulus that naturally produces a response and a previously neutral stimulus. Operant conditioning involves voluntary behaviors and utilizes reinforcement and punishment to modify behavior.

How do you distinguish between reinforcement and punishment?

Reinforcement increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur, while punishment decreases the likelihood that it will occur.


Operant conditioning is an important learning process that utilizes reinforcement and punishment to shape or modify behavior. First described by B. F. Skinner, operant conditioning had an important impact on behaviorism and continues to be widely used today.

Read More: Reinforcement vs. Punishment: What Are the Differences?


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