What is operant conditioning? We’ll explore this learning theory and how it’s different techniques can be used in everyday and clinical settings.
Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning, is a learning theory in behavioral psychology. It can be used to increase or decrease the frequency of certain behaviors through the introduction of consequences.
The use of operant conditioning to change human behavior can be positive or negative, depending on the intention of the person using the techniques. The principles of operant conditioning can be used to shape behavior in selfish ways that aren’t in the best interest of others.
However, “when intentions are benevolent, operant conditioning holds great potential to benefit both the individual and public health,” says Jennifer Hettema, PhD, clinical psychologist and senior clinical director at LifeStance Health in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Psychologist Edward Thorndike originally developed the “Law of Effect” in 1898. This is the concept that a behavior is more likely to be repeated if it’s associated with a sense of satisfaction.
In 1937, behaviorist B.F. Skinner expanded upon Thorndike’s theory. He coined the term “operant conditioning” and wrote about it in his book “Schedules of Reinforcement,” which he co-authored with psychologist Charles B. Ferster.
It’s not to be confused with classical conditioning, though. So, what’s the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning?
While classical conditioning is based on a stimuli and response model, operant conditioning involves a behavior and consequence. The main difference here is that one leads to an unconscious effect (classical) and the other involves a conscious choice (operant).
In an experiment known as the “Skinner box,” Skinner placed a rat in a box with a lever that released food into the box. After the rat accidentally hit the lever enough times, it ultimately learned that its behavior (pulling the lever) led to a specific consequence (receiving food).
This model of influencing behavior in animals is now used for behavior modification in humans as well. It’s essentially become part of the foundation for what we know as cognitive behavioral therapy today.
Operant conditioning psychology consists of many working parts, including different types, principles, and scheduling factors.
Reinforcement and punishment
The two main types of behavioral modifiers in operant conditioning are called reinforcers and punishers. Reinforcement and punishment can also be further broken down into two subtypes: positive and negative.
The four types of operant conditioning techniques include:
- Positive reinforcers: the addition of a reward
- Negative reinforcers: the removal of a punishment
- Positive punishers: the addition of a punishment
- Negative punishers: the removal of a reward
“In operant conditioning, we’re likely to increase behaviors that are followed by a reward and decrease behaviors that are followed by a punishment,” says Hettema.
Put simply: “Reinforcers are consequences that increase the likelihood of a behavior,” she explains. “Punishers are consequences that decrease the likelihood of a behavior.”
She notes that we can also define reinforcers or punishers based on the following factors:
- when they’re delivered in relation to the behavior (e.g. immediate or delayed)
- whether they’re given based on the frequency of behavior or the passing of time
- whether these patterns are consistent or variable
Schedules of reinforcement
The different schedules of reinforcement in operant conditioning include:
- Continuous: reinforcement every time the behavior occurs
- Fixed-ratio schedules: reinforcement after the behavior occurs a certain number of times
- Fixed-interval schedules: reinforcement after the behavior occurs for a certain period of time
- Variable-ratio schedules: reinforcement at random after the behavior occurs an unpredictable number of times
- Variable-interval schedules: reinforcement at random after the behavior occurs for an unpredictable period of time
These schedules suggest that behavioral predictability depends on the frequency and consistency of reinforcement.
If there’s always a specific consequence, behavior is likely to be reinforced more strongly. This can be helpful when you want to encourage a higher frequency of a desired behavior.
“We’ve learned that reinforcers that occur immediately following a variable number of attempts at a behavior are very salient,” adds Hettema.
According to a
If the consequence to a behavior is randomly presented, the consistency in behavioral response may be varied and more erratic. And when a behavior isn’t reinforced or rewarded for an extended period of time, it may eventually lead to the extinction of that response.
“Principles of operant conditioning can be applied in any context in which one is hoping to influence the behavior of others,” says Hettema.
Here are some examples of how you can use operant conditioning to modify behaviors in your everyday life.
“Parents apply principles of operant conditioning to help teach their children about safety and shape them into healthy, productive members of society,” says Hettema.
Parents can use operant conditioning with their children by:
- offering praise when they do something positive
- giving them a piece of candy when they clean their room
- letting them play video games after they complete their homework
- sending them to their room as a form of punishment
- ending a playdate if they don’t stop misbehaving
Teachers can use operant conditioning in the classroom to influence student behavior by:
- using stickers to lead up to a bigger reward
- taking away recess privileges if a student misbehaves
- throwing a pizza party if 15 students earn a high grade on a test or quiz
- ignoring a student who yells out and doesn’t raise their hand to answer a question
- giving a student detention if they’re late to class too many times
Operant conditioning can even be used in the workplace to improve productivity and affect employee morale by:
- giving an employee a gift card for five positive customer reviews
- offering a day off for working extra hard during the week
- presenting a bonus for meeting a quarterly sales goal
- suspending an employee for missing work too many times
- giving praise to an employee for consistent great work
Anyone can use operant conditioning techniques to encourage or discourage certain behaviors within their relationships. Some ideas include:
- complimenting your friend on the way they handled a situation
- cooking your partner’s favorite dinner after they vacuum the house three times in a row
- giving a gift to your roommate to thank them for taking care of one of your chores
The principles of operant conditioning can be used to help treat people living with certain mental health conditions as well.
Operant conditioning therapy is a main component of cognitive behavioral therapy — a form of psychotherapy.
If you live with a mental health condition, mental health professionals can introduce reinforcers or punishers to help shift certain unwanted behaviors into more desired behaviors.
Operant conditioning techniques in behavior therapy can help improve symptoms of certain mental health conditions, like:
“A person experiencing feelings of anxiety or panic might be tempted to flee their current situation,” explains Hettema. “If fleeing decreases their feelings of distress, that can reinforce and strengthen unhealthy avoidant behaviors.
“These same principles apply to [OCD], whereby individuals engage in unhealthy repetitive behaviors to decrease feelings of distress associated with negative thoughts,” she adds, noting that “disrupting the reinforcing elements of the compulsive behavior are key to treatment success.”
“For individuals with an alcohol use disorder, a medication called disulfiram, which interacts with alcohol to create extreme nausea and vomiting, can be taken daily to deter individuals from drinking,” says Hettema.
Put forward by B.F. Skinner in the 1930s, operant conditioning is a learning theory that describes how behavior can be shaped by specific consequences called reinforcers and punishers.
Essentially, reinforcers will encourage behaviors, whereas punishers will discourage them. And depending on the schedule of reinforcement, those behaviors can either increase or decrease in frequency and consistency.
Operant conditioning can be used in everyday life at work, school, or within relationships. It can also be used in clinical settings in therapy to help treat mental health conditions like obsessive-compulsive disorder or substance use disorder.
If you’re looking to shape the behavior of your child, your new dog, or yourself, consider speaking with a mental health professional to see how operant conditioning can work best for you.