What is Operant Behavior?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Operant behavior is a term first used by B.F. Skinner who was one of the best-known psychologists in the behaviorism school. In his many years of work, Skinner theorized that organisms were often influenced in behavior by consequences, and that previous consequences would have an affect on future behavior. Consequences could be either natural or contrived, and were often contrived in the types of studies on operant behavior practices on animals.

When parents refuse to respond to a child's cries, they are inducing a form of operant behavior response.
When parents refuse to respond to a child's cries, they are inducing a form of operant behavior response.

Essentially, this type of behavior is the person/organism response to consequences, and the way behavior is influenced by such. Operant itself is behavior that produces some affect on the general environment. Another definition could be not only behavior that is influenced by environment but that causes change to the environment.

Giving a rat a reward for running through a maze is an example of operant behavior.
Giving a rat a reward for running through a maze is an example of operant behavior.

It is perhaps easiest to understand this in the context of examples. There are many types of operants that could encourage a behavior based on giving positive reinforcement. For instance, rats could be tested for speed when they run through a maze. After beginning testing, a tasty food snack would be put at the end of the maze to determine if the rat would have a shorter running time. If the rat’s running time increased, this is an example of operant behavior (provided the test can be duplicated multiple times). The rat’s behavior changes (speed increases) because it is being positively reinforced to run through the maze.

Alternately, a scientist could test the rat’s operant behavior by placing in a box a lever or button that causes pain when it is pressed. If the rat first explores the lever and experiences this pain, it is likely to leave the lever alone afterwards. This explores the idea of negative reinforcement or a negative operant.

Another example of operant behavior or operants is lack of consequences or extinction conditioning. This is when nothing results from a behavior. People regularly use this form of extinction condition with young children. The "cry it out" method induces a response, because parents do not respond to a child’s cries. This gradually reinforces the concept in the infant that crying does not elicit a parent’s response and is therefore worthless.

Some people feel a degree of discomfort with behaviorism, and particularly with things like the cry it out method. It is fair to question what operant behavior means on a larger scale. Does the cry it out baby ultimately end up needing therapy because he has grown with a sense of inferiority and unimportance? That’s a good and much debated issue.

However work by Skinner and others has been successfully applied in psychology, even if there exists arguments about behavioral psychology and its methods. The sum total of things that govern complete behavior in a human may be very different. Clearly, though, Skinner and many other behaviorists have shown that both animals and people often change their behavior given different operants, and the ways that can be applied to benefit people might be numerous.

Giving a pet a treat when he follows commands is a type of operant conditioning known as positive reinforcement.
Giving a pet a treat when he follows commands is a type of operant conditioning known as positive reinforcement.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


I think it would work on the age group I work with.


There is a family in town who thought it was wise to teach their child of three months to sleep through the night by not responding to his cries. The child cried for as much as six hours at a time. Not to worry. They turned off the monitor so the crying would not disturb their sleep. Now that the little boy is almost four, he has been diagnosed with many different learning disabilities.


Moldova - I agree with that theory but I don’t think that operant conditioning should be used on a baby. A baby cries as its only means of communication because a baby cannot verbalize what is wrong therefore it is cruel in my opinion to let a baby cry until it falls asleep.

Babies need to be nurtured and held until you can rock them to sleep. Sometimes babies cry because they need to be changed or might be a little hungry. Listening to your babies cries will help you understand what he wants and will help you become a better parent.

I don’t know what the long term effects are of letting a baby cry it out but I think that a more nurturing stance is best.


I think that many teachers in the classroom use shaping behavior in order to guide children to develop acceptable behavioral patterns in the classroom.

They often use operant classical conditioning in order to reward children that are practicing positive behavioral traits and ignore children who are not.

For example, a teacher might ignore a child that constantly calls out an answer when the teacher is trying to illicit responses from the entire class.

The child calling out the answer is seeking attention and validation from the teacher but because he is not following proper classroom protocol he is ignored.

This classical operant conditioning eventually gets the impulsive student to raise their hand next time the teacher has a question. It is really a great tactic.

Post your comments
Forgot password?