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Operant Conditioning

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Operant conditioning, so named by psychologist B. F. Skinner, is the modification of behavior brought about over time by the consequences of said behavior. The phrase operant conditioning differs from Pavlovian conditioning in that while operant conditioning deals with voluntary behavior explained by its consequences, Pavlovian conditioning deals with involuntary behavior triggered by its antecedents.

Operant conditioning, sometimes called instrumental conditioning or instrumental learning, was first extensively studied by Edward L. Thorndike (1874-1949), who observed the behavior of cats trying to escape from home-made puzzle boxes. When first constrained in the boxes, the cats took a long time to escape. With experience, ineffective responses occurred less frequently and successful responses occurred more frequently, enabling the cats to escape in less time over successive trials. In his Law of Effect, Thorndike theorized that successful responses, those producing satisfying consequences, were "stamped in" by the experience and thus occurred more frequently. Unsuccessful responses, those producing annoying consequences, were stamped out and subsequently occurred less frequently. In short, some consequences strengthened behavior and some consequences weakened behavior. B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) built upon Thorndike's ideas to construct a more detailed theory of operant conditioning based on reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement and punishment

Reinforcement and punishment, the core ideas of operant conditioning, are either positive (adding a stimulus to an organism's environment), or negative (removing a stimulus from an organism's environment). This creates a total of four basic consequences, with the addition of no consequence (i.e. nothing happens). It's important to note that organisms are not reinforced or punished; behavior is reinforced or punished.

  • Reinforcement is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with greater frequency.
  • Punishment is a consequence that causes a behavior to occur with less frequency. According to Skinner's theory of operant conditioning, there are two methods of decreasing a behavior or response. These can be by punishment or extinction.

Four contexts of operant conditioning: Here the terms "positive" and "negative" are not used in their popular sense, but rather: "positive" refers to addition, and "negative" refers to subtraction. What is added or subtracted may be either reinforcement or punishment. Hence positive punishment is sometimes a confusing term, as it denotes the addition of punishment (such as spanking or an electric shock), a context that may seem very negative in the lay sense. The four situations are:

  1. Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a pleasant stimulus that rewards it. In the Skinner box experiment, positive reinforcement is the rat pressing a lever and receiving a food reward.
  2. Negative reinforcement occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by an unpleasant stimulus being removed. In the Skinner box experiment, negative reinforcement is a loud noise continuously sounding inside the rat's cage until it presses the lever, when the noise ceases.
  3. Positive punishment an aversive stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise.
  4. Negative punishment or Extinction removes a pleasant stimulus, such as taking away a child's toy. This occurs when a behavior (response) that had previously been followed by a pleasant stimulus is followed by no stimulus at all. In the Skinner box experiment, this is the rat pushing the lever and being rewarded with a food pellet several times, and then pushing the lever again and never receiving a food pellet again. Eventually the rat would learn that no food would come, and would cease pushing the lever.


  • A type of learning in which a certain behavior (usually negative) is not done in an attempt to not receive a punishment is termed avoidance learning.
  • One of the practical aspects of operant conditioning with relation to animal training is the use of shaping or Reinforcing successive approximations, as well as chaining.

See also


  • Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Acton, MA: Copley.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior. New York. Macmillan.
  • Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
  • Thorndike, E. L. (1901). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Psychological Review Monograph Supplement, 2, 1-109.

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