Basic Psychology, Cognitive Psychology, Learning and Memory

Operant Conditioning

By the 1920s, John B. Watson had left academic psychology, and other behaviorists were becoming influential, proposing new forms of learning other than classical conditioning. Perhaps the most important of these was Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Although, for obvious reasons, he is more commonly known as B.F. Skinner.Skinner’s views were slightly less extreme than those of Watson(1913). Skinner believed that we do have such a thing as a mind, but that it is simply more productive to study observable behavior rather than internal mental events.The work of Skinner was rooted in a view that classical conditioning was far too simplistic to be a complete explanation of complex human behavior. He believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning(sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.For example, when a lab rat presses a blue button, he receives a food pellet as a reward, but when he presses the red button he receives a mild electric shock.As a result, he learns to press the blue button but avoid the red button.



But operant conditioning is not just something that takes place in experimental settings while training lab animals; it also plays a powerful role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and punishment take place almost every day in natural settings as well as in more structured settings such as the classroom or therapy sessions.

Components of Operant Conditioning

There are several key concepts in operant conditioning.



Reinforcement Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative.

Positive reinforcement is giving something pleasant after a behavior. This increases the probability that the behavior will continue. Examples are:
  • Receiving praise after a musical performance would increase the amount that you perform.
  • A teacher complimenting students when they answer correctly will increase that behavior.

Negative reinforcement is taking away something unpleasant as a result of the behavior that is acceptable. This is also meant to increase the behavior. Examples are:

  • It is very noisy outside so you turn on the television to mask the noise. Turning on the radio decreased the unpleasant noise.
  • A teacher exempts student from the final test if they have perfect attendance. So, the teacher is taking away something unpleasant to increase behavior.


Punishment Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.

Positive punishment is used to decrease a behavior and is presenting something unpleasant after the behavior. Examples are:
  • An employee exhibits bad behavior at work and the boss criticizes him. The behavior will decrease because of the boss’s criticism.
  • When a student misbehaves in class, she receives a time out.
  • A child gets a spanking when he puts his hand in the cookie jar.

Negative punishment is also used to decrease a behavior and is removing something pleasant after the behavior. Examples are:

  • An employee is habitually late for work so begins losing the privilege of listening to music while working. The behavior will decrease because of losing a privilege.
  • Kevin trashes his sister’s room and Mom told him he could not go camping with his friends.


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