What is Operant Conditioning?

Mary McMahon

Operant conditioning is a form of behavior modification which is used to either decrease or increase the likelihood that a particular behavior will occur. The process relies on the idea that organisms respond to stimuli, and that if they can be taught to associate a specific stimulus with a particular behavior, they will be more likely to engage in or avoid the behavior, depending on the type of stimulus involved. Many people use operant conditioning at some level in their daily lives, and it is also utilized in psychology experiments.

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.

Much of the famous work on operant conditioning was done in the 20th century by B. F. Skinner, a well known behavioral psychologist. Others have expanded upon his work and explored the many different ways in which operant conditioning can occur. In all cases, the goal is to get organisms to modify voluntary behavior, also known as operant behavior. Knowing how operant conditioning works, people can use it to modify the behavior of people or organisms around them.

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.

There are several different types of stimuli which can be used in operant conditioning. One involves reinforcement, which is designed to encourage an organism to repeat a behavior. In positive reinforcement, something pleasant is added to the environment as a reward. In negative reinforcement, something unpleasant is taken away. The organism learns to link a behavior with a positive event, and thus begins to repeat the behavior.

With punishment, either something good is taken out of the environment, or something bad is added to it. Positive punishment involves the addition of something unpleasant, such as an irritating tone or a mild electric shock. Negative punishment involves the removal of a pleasant stimuli.

There is another type of stimulus which could perhaps better be classified a nonstimulus. In extinction, nothing happens after an animal engages in a behavior. This can tend to extinguish the behavior, as the animal learns that nothing will happen when it engages in a behavior being studied in operant conditioning experiments.

In operant conditioning, reinforcement and punishment are provided on a schedule. Sometimes, the organism experiences a stimulus every time, especially at the beginning. In other cases, the schedule may be erratic. This can encourage the organism to repeat or avoid the behavior because it does not know when a stimulus might occur. If the schedule becomes too irregular, the organism may start to behave erratically, because it no longer sees a clear connection between a particular behavior and a consequence.

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Discussion Comments


For each of the following situations, describe the best course of action using operant conditioning techniques. Be sure to clearly describe your recommendations using operant conditioning principles and terms (terms should also be defined). 1. Morgan is a fifth grade teacher. Johnny is in Morgan's class and is being disruptive. He talks out of turn and makes "smart" remarks. What should Morgan do to stop this behavior? 2. Juanita us trying to discourage her cat from jumping up on the kitchen counter. What things should she avoid doing to stop this behavior? 3. Today we see many people, young and old, with tattoos. For some folks, it is a much more widely accepted behavior today that it is for other folks. Using operant conditioning, explain why Billy would get a tattoo and why Flossy would have one removed.


It can be disturbing how easy it is to use operant conditioning on another person. It can affect not just children, either, but adults as well. A negative example of this would be in many abusive romantic relationships- the abuser uses operant conditioning to convince the abused person to remain, even when getting help would be relatively simple to do.


If you want to encourage a behavior, an erratic schedule is better, because the subject will never know when the reward is coming, and so continue doing it repeatedly. If you want to eradicate something, you should perform the punishment/reinforcement every time, to end it quickly.

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