How Operant Conditioning Works With Examples

(Last Updated On: October 5, 2022)

Operant Conditioning Definition: 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.

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.

In this article:

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 type of active behavior that affects the environment and leads to consequences.

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 in Operant Conditioning

Reinforcement is any type of 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.

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 rate would quickly learn 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 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). 

Primary vs. Conditioned Reinforcers

Different kinds of reinforcers 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 in Operant Conditioning

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 to decrease a behavior. Spanking is an example of positive 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.

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 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.

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 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.

Frequently Asked 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.

APA Format References:

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Overskeid, G. (2018). Do we need the environment to explain operant behavior? Frontiers in Psychology9, 373. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2018.00373

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Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior (First Free Press Paperback edition). The Free Press.

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Thorndike, E. L. (1898). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. The Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements2(4), i–109. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0092987