What Is Operant Conditioning?

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Operant conditioning is a process in which people learn to behave in a certain way in order to get rewards and avoid punishment. It's a type of behavior change that occurs because of a purposeful cause-and-effect reinforcement. When applied in behavioral therapy, operant conditioning can be used to create change based on rewards and punishments.

Most people use operant conditioning without even realizing it—especially when it comes to parenting and other behavior-driven aspects of life. This article will explore how operant conditioning has evolved, what types of behaviors can be changed, and how it is used today.

What to Know About Operant Conditioning - Illustration by Daniel Fishel

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History

Burrhus Frederic Skinner, commonly known as B.F. Skinner, was an American psychologist who spent his career studying concepts of behaviorism.

Behaviorism is an approach to psychology that focuses on using conditioning to modify behaviors. While the interest and use of behaviorism evolved over the 20th century, Skinner is sometimes known as the father of operant conditioning for his work in advancing this field of therapy.

Psychologist John B. Watson laid the groundwork for Skinner's theories by focusing on the study of classical conditioning. Experts in classical conditioning believed that behaviors could be changed to mold a person to have an automatic conditioned response to anything.

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, focuses more on choice and willful actions. Skinner's theory took the earlier work of psychologist Edward Thorndike—who noted that satisfying experiences are likely to be repeated—a step further.

Skinner created the operant conditioning box (or Skinner box), which is a chamber used to cut off any environmental stimuli that could impact a response so that a particular stimulus could be studied for its effect on behaviors.

How It Works

Sometimes called instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning relies on the following three factors:

  • Discriminative stimulus: This is the controlled stimulus or cue that is present when the desired behavior is reinforced.
  • Reinforcer: This serves as the "reward" or "punishment" that leads to a change in behavior. A negative reinforcer could lead a subject to avoid repeating the behavior, while a positive reinforcer may motivate a subject to continue a particular behavior.
  • Operant response: This is the behavior that results from the use of a discriminative stimulus and reinforcers.

These factors are used together to increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

Skinner noted that when, how, and how often reinforcers are used all are important. This aspect of operant conditioning is called a schedule of reinforcement. These are the rules that are applied to produce a particular response.

Usually, a schedule of reinforcement will include a specific interval or amount of time between reinforcement, how many responses come from each reinforcer, and how long or often a reinforcer can be removed before a behavior stops.

Types of Behaviors Addressed

Behavioral therapies use operant conditioning widely for all kinds of situations. In some cases, it can be used to try to get a subject to repeat desired behaviors.

For example, a dog learns to shake hands when you use edible treats as a reward. If the treats are no longer offered, it's unlikely the dog would continue shaking hands—although it might take a number of "failures" for the dog to get the message that the treat is no longer coming. As long as the reward continues, though, the dog is likely to keep shaking hands.

Operant conditioning can also be used to reduce unwanted behaviors. Examples of this could include an injury from a dangerous activity or a fine for breaking the law. The penalty that comes because of the behavior makes the subject not want to continue that behavior.

Methods of psychotherapy, or talk therapy, that use operant conditioning can influence behaviors in variety of conditions in the clinical setting, including:

Summary

Behavioral therapies are used in psychotherapy to motivate good behaviors and deter negative ones. Operant conditioning is more than just a cause-and-effect way of changing behavior, as it relies on motivating a subject to make a particular choice rather than relying on instinct alone.

A Word From Verywell

Chances are, you have used operant conditioning—or had it used on you—without even realizing it. When children lose privileges because of a bad behavior, prompting them to choose better behaviors in the future, this is an example of operant conditioning. Similarly, a child who is offered money or some other reward for earning good grades will be more motivated to continue to work toward high achievement to obtain the reward.

Operant conditioning is a type of reinforcement that can be used to promote good choices and behaviors and deter the bad or undesirable ones.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is operant conditioning a type of hypnosis?

    No. Hypnosis implies a trance-like state in which there is a heightened level of suggestibility. Operant conditioning relies on selectively changing reinforcements to affect future behaviors.

  • Do rewards work better than punishments?

    Rewards and punishments can both be used in operant conditioning. A positive reinforcer is the introduction of a desirable reward to reinforce a particular behavior. A negative reinforcer is an unpleasant event whose removal follows a particular behavior. Negative reinforcement doesn't always have to be a punishment.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Ploog BO. Classical conditioning. Encyclopedia of Human Behavior. 2012:484-491. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-375000-6.00090-2.

  3. McLeod, S. A. Edward Thorndike. Simply Psychology. 2018.

  4. American Psychological Association. Operant conditioning chamber.

  5. Tryon WW. Clinical applications of principle 2: Learning and memory. Cognitive Neuroscience and Psychotherapy. 2014:453-500. doi:10.1016/B978-0-12-420071-5.00010-7.

  6. McLeod, SA. What is operant conditioning and how does it work? Simply Psychology. 2018.

  7. Goldman JG. What is operant conditioning? Scientific American. 2012.

  8. University of Iowa. Schedules of reinforcement.

  9. Wake Forest University. 6 types of behavior therapies used by counselors today.

  10. B.F. Skinner Foundation. A brief survey of operant behavior.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.