Sunday, March 20, 2011

Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner identified several fundamental principles of learning, based on his experiments with rats and pigeons. From his experiments, he explained how humans learn behaviors or change established behaviors, and further inferred most behavior is shaped by patterns of reinforcement in an individual's environment. He called this process operant conditioning (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). According to Skinner, two general principles are associated with operant conditioning: a response followed by a reinforcing stimulus will most likely be repeated, and second, anything that increases the rate of response by the operant is a reinforcing stimulus. Operant behavior is maintained by its consequences and the learner leverages the environment (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The importance of Skinner's discoveries and theories is evident in their wide use in science, psychology, and childrearing. Its continued use demonstrates its applicability and appropriateness in daily life as well as severe problematic maladaptive behaviors (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

The Theory of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which the use of behavior's preceding circumstances or its consequences affects and produces behavior. It occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior, because of cognitive associations between, and expectations of consequences for a behavior (Cherry. n.d.). According to Olson and Hergenhahn (2009), Skinner believed "we are what we have been reinforced for being" (p. 76). In essence, he believed behavior is controlled by reinforcement (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). In operant conditioning the learner responds and produces a reinforcing stimulus (Cherry, n.d.). There is no stimulus preceding the behavior, the behavior is a consequence of the response. Skinner (1965) coined the term operant to describe active behavior that operates on the environment to provoke consequences. Skinner's theory of operant conditioning explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit daily (Cherry, n.d.).

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Reinforcement is a tool of operant conditioning and can be either positive or negative. Reinforcement is a consequence that strengthens or increases the probability of a response recurring. Positive reinforcement occurs when the outcome that follows behavior is favorable, and as such, the behavior is strengthened by the favorable outcome, as in the case of praise or a reward following behavior. Negative reinforcement occurs when an adverse event is removed following behavior, and the behavior is strengthened by removing that which is unfavorable (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Whereas positive reinforcement is the addition of a positive consequence following a specific behavior, negative reinforcement is the removal of a negative consequence following a specific behavior. Both positive and negative reinforcement are designed to strengthen or increase the likelihood of the same or similar behavior recurring (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Both types of reinforcement encourage a continuance of the behavior that precedes the consequence.

Effective Reinforcement

Generally, positive reinforcement seems to be the most effective type of conditioning. It has positive emotional effects and it clearly identifies correctness and appropriateness. Immediate feedback is usually more effective than consequences given later. B. F. Skinner argued against the use of punishment because of its lack of long-term effectiveness while others believe its emotional side effects, and the lack of information conveyed to the operant for correcting behavior make it a less effective conditioning (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

The efficacy of the reinforcement may depend on the situation in which reinforcement is used. Negative reinforcement may be more effective when negative circumstances are already established, although positive reinforcement may be more effective in a situation in which there are no established negative consequences, and adding a favorable reward will lead to the continuance of the positive or acceptable behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The effectiveness of reinforcement is lessened if there is no need or desire for the reinforcement. For example, offering a fully sated child more ice cream will not be as effective as offering the dessert to a child who has had none. Deprivation of the dessert makes it an effective reinforcement, and as such, for the deprived child, the effectiveness of the consequence increases.

Operant Conditioning Scenario

I had the opportunity to use operant conditioning to change the behavior of a stroke patient. His wife (a good friend) was extremely frustrated by his refusal to wear adult diapers to prevent him from urinating on the furniture and assuring he reached the bathroom without accident. First, I considered the situation to determine which type of conditioning would be most effective and equally appropriate for his generally intelligent adult character. He is an artistic man and highly aware of the esthetic quality of his proximal environment. I decided to purchase extremely unattractive shower curtains with which his wife and I covered all of the furniture, and explained to him the plastic coverings must stay in place to protect the furniture. If he decided to wear the protective undergarments, his wife would remove the shower curtains. He maintained his refusal of the undergarments for another two days, after which he decided he could not live with the shower curtain couture. This is an example of the negative reinforcement type of conditioning, although we first implemented what appeared to be a positive punishment when we placed the shower curtains on the furniture. However, we set the shower curtains in place so we could use a continued plan of negative reinforcement.

Reinforcement Schedule for Scenario

In my chosen scenario, for good behavior (wearing protective undergarments) the behavior was negatively reinforced by the removal of the shower curtains. We used a continuous reinforcement schedule and reinstated the use of the shower curtains for the undesired behavior (refusing to wear the protective undergarment) because it was necessary to prevent the destruction of the furniture. To keep emphasis on the negative reinforcement rather than on the positive punishment (replacing the shower curtains), we did not discuss it when we put the shower curtains back in place, although we emphasized the appropriateness of his wearing the undergarment and articulated such during the removal of the shower curtains (the negative reinforcement.)


Operant conditioning is used daily basis in the media, advertising, childrearing, psychological treatment, and teaching. Used appropriately, operant conditioning plays a significant role in the complex undertaking of correcting severely maladaptive behavior, to the simple modification of slightly unfavorable behavior. Although Skinner thought all of humankind would benefit from behavioral modification begun in childhood and continued throughout the life span, most psychologists find a less dominant use of such modification and behavioral dictatorship appropriate. Operant conditioning continues to be used daily and has successfully withstood one of the most difficult assays - the test of time. The use of behavior's antecedent and its consequence to affect the generation of behavior will likely be an integral part of the psychological paradigm until science demonstrates a new understanding of these influences.


Cherry, K. (n.d.). Operant Conditioning - Introduction to Operant Conditioning. Psychology - Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Retrieved March 4, 2011, from

Olson, M. H., & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to theories of learning (8th ed.).

Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York, NY: Free Press.

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