What Is Operant Conditioning?

(Last Updated On: December 1, 2021)

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 the use of 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 some examples of this type of learning in action, and consider some of the ways that operant conditioning can be used in real life.

Operant Conditioning Definition: Operant conditioning is defined as 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.

How Operant Conditioning Was Discovered

The operant conditioning process was first described by an American psychologist named B. F. Skinner, who was 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 had 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 known as 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 sometimes known as Skinnerian conditioning or instrumental conditioning, was based on Edward Thorndike’s law of effect. The law of effect states that behaviors that are followed by desirable outcomes are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors followed by undesirable outcomes are less likely to be repeated. 

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

Reinforcement

Skinner observed that there were two different forms of reinforcement that could be used to increase the chances that behavior would occur in the future.

  • 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.
  • Negative reinforcement involves taking away an undesirable outcome after a behavior. For example, doing something like cleaning your room or putting away your things before your roommate gets home means you’ll avoid an argument. By removing the unwanted outcome, it reinforces the behavior (cleaning up). 

There are also different kinds of reinforcers that may produce differing effects. Primary reinforcers are things that naturally reinforce because they fulfill some type of 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

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

  • Positive punishment involves the addition of an adverse outcome in order to decrease a behavior. Spanking is an example of positive punishment.
  • Negative reinforcement involves taking away a desirable outcome in order 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.

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. 

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.

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

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 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 that is resistant to extinction.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

It can be helpful to look at some examples of how the operant conditioning 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.

Homework Incentives

Parents may use operant conditioning to increase the likelihood that a child completes their homework. For example, a parent might give a child a favorite treat once this homework is done each night. If the reward is given every time the behavior is successfully performed, this would be an example of continuous reinforcement.

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Reward Charts

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 given a reward. 

Work Bonuses

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. 

Encouraging Behaviors With Praise

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.

Applications for Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning can have a variety of real-world applications when it comes to teaching or modifying behavior. Some of the ways that it might be used in different situations include:

  • Classroom behavior: Operant conditioning can be helpful for managing 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 are used to modify behaviors, either by encouraging desirable behaviors or discouraging undesirable behaviors. Some strategies that might be used include token economies, behavior modeling, and contingency management. 

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.


Summary

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.