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Operant Conditioning Theory

B. F. Skinner
B. F. Skinner (1904 - 1990) was the behaviorist who assumed leadership of the field after John Watson. He was even more determined than Watson that psychologists should study only measurable, observable behaviour. In addition to his knowledge of Pavlovian classical conditioning, Skinner found in the work of Thorndike a way to explain all behavior as the product of learning. He even gave the learning of voluntary behavior a special name: Operant Conditioning. Voluntary behavior is that which people do to operate in the world. So voluntary behavior for Skinner is operant behavior and the learning of such behavior is operant conditioning. 

Operant Conditioning is a type of learning. It is very similar to the classical conditioning. The term "Operant" refers to how an organism operates on the environment, and hence, operant conditioning comes from how we respond to what is presented to us in our environment. It can be thought of as learning due to the natural consequences of our actions.

The classic study of Operant Conditioning involved a cat who was placed in a box called "Skinner box" or "operant conditioning chamber, with only one way out; a specific area of the box had to be pressed in order for the door to open. The cat initially tries to get out of the box because freedom is reinforcing. In its attempt to escape, the area of the box is triggered and the door opens. The cat is now free. Once placed in the box again, the cat will naturally try to remember what it did to escape the previous time and will once again find the area to press. The more the cat is placed back in the box, the quicker it will press that area for its freedom. It has learned, through natural consequences, how to gain the reinforcing freedom.

We learn this way every day in our lives. Imagine the last time you made a mistake; you most likely remember that mistake and do things differently when the situation comes up again. In that sense, you’ve learned to act differently based on the natural consequences of your previous actions. The same holds true for positive actions. If something you did results in a positive outcome, you are likely to do that same activity again.


The term reinforce means to strengthen, and is used in psychology to refer to anything stimulus which strengthens or increases the probability of a specific response. For example, if you want your dog to sit on command, you may give him a treat every time he sits for you. The dog will eventually come to understand that sitting when told to will result in a treat. This treat is reinforcing because he likes it and will result in him sitting when instructed to do so.

This is a simple description of a reinforcer (Skinner, 1938), the treat, which increases the response, sitting. We all apply reinforcers everyday, most of the time without even realizing we are doing it. You may tell your child "good job" after he or she cleans their room; perhaps you tell your partner how good he or she look when they dress up; or maybe you got a raise at work after doing a great job on a project. All of these things increase the probability that the same response will be repeated.

Primary and Secondary Reinforcer

A reinforcer such as candy bar that satisfies a basic need like hunger is called a primary reinforcer. Examples would be any kind of food (hunger drive), liquid (thirst drive), touch (pleasure drive). Infants, toddlers, preschool-age children and animals can be easily reinforced by using primary reinforcers.

A secondary reinforcer such as money, however, gets its reinforcing properties from being associated with primary reinforcers in the past. A child who is given money to spend soon realizes that the ugly green paper can be traded for candy and treats - primary reinforcers - and so money becomes reinforcing in and if itself. If a person praises a puppy while petting him (touch, a primary reinforcer), the praise alone will eventually make the puppy squirm with delight. 

There are four types of reinforcement: positive, negative, punishment, and extinction. We’ll discuss each of these and give examples.

1. Positive Reinforcement: 

The examples above describe what is referred to as positive reinforcement. Think of it as adding something in order to increase a response. For example, adding a treat will increase the response of sitting; adding praise will increase the chances of your child cleaning his or her room. The most common types of positive reinforcement or praise and rewards, and most of us have experienced this as both the giver and receiver.

2. Negative Reinforcement: 

Think of negative reinforcement as taking something negative away in order to increase a response. Imagine a teenager who is nagged by his mother to take out the garbage week after week. After complaining to his friends about the nagging, he finally one day performs the task and to his amazement, the nagging stops. The elimination of this negative stimulus is reinforcing and will likely increase the chances that he will take out the garbage next week.

3. Punishment: 

Punishment refers to adding something aversive in order to decrease a behavior. The most common example of this is disciplining (e.g. spanking) a child for misbehaving. The reason we do this is because the child begins to associate being punished with the negative behavior. The punishment is not liked and therefore to avoid it, he or she will stop behaving in that manner.

4. Extinction:

When you remove something in order to decrease a behavior, this is called extinction. You are taking something away so that a response is decreased.

Research has found positive reinforcement is the most powerful of any of these. Adding a positive to increase a response not only works better, but allows both parties to focus on the positive aspects of the situation. Punishment, when applied immediately following the negative behavior can be effective, but results in extinction when it is not applied consistently. Punishment can also invoke other negative responses such as anger and resentment.

Reinforcement Schedules

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