Different Concepts of Operant Conditioning

In this article, you will learn the different concepts of operant conditioning. I have also added the definition, examples, and principal theories.

Behavior is defined as a combination of inherited traits, education and the environment.

Certain behaviors are innate and genetic. While some are taught by interacting with the environment.

Operant conditioning is a method of learning. Through which the strength of a behavior can be modified. 

Behavioral psychologists define learning as a process that involves putting together a stimulus with a conditioned response.

A Brief Explanation of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a method of learning. It comprises of two constructs:

In this method of learning, an association gets established between

  • a behavior and
  • a consequence for that behavior.

The process involves rewarding certain kinds of behaviors and holding back rewards for undesirable behaviors.

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For example, in a controlled lab setting, if a rat (subject) presses a blue button, it receives food as a reward.

However, if the rat presses the red button it receives a mild electric shock.

Consequently, the rat learns to press the blue button and avoid the red button.

Operant conditioning is no more limited to controlled lab environments. 

Reinforcement and punishment occur almost every day in natural settings. We can observe it in structured settings like therapy sessions or classrooms.

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Skinner Operant Conditioning Theory

Operant conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning is the same. This term is coined by B. F. Skinner. He is a notable and renowned American psychologist and behaviorist in the 1930s.

Skinner was of the opinion that in order to explain behavior, it was not really necessary to look at individual thoughts and motives.

Alternatively, he said, only the actual, measurable causes of human behavior should be looked at.

Skinner Operant Conditioning Concept

 The theory of Operating conditioning is based on a fairly simple concept. It states actions that are accompanied by reinforcement.

These actions will reinforce. It is also more likely to occur in the future.

For instance when you share a funny story in your class and everyone is laughing; you are more likely to narrate it in the future again.

Similarly, when you raise your hand to ask a question and your instructor praises your respectful behavior, you’re going to be more encouraged to raise your hand the next time you have a question or comment.

Positive Reinforcement

As reinforcement or a positive result took place before the conduct.

The prior actions were reinforced.

Positive reinforcement, such as praise or reward, enhances certain behavior.

Contrarily, actions resulting in punishment or unwanted consequences will be weakened and less likely to happen again in the future.

Example of Negative Reinforcement

When you say the same story again in another class, but this time no one is laughing, in the future, you will be less likely to repeat the story again.

If you shout out a response in the classroom and your teacher scolds you. Obviously, you may be less likely to interrupt the class in the future.

As a result, negative reinforcement involves removing a result after a certain action is demonstrated.  However, the conduct rises in both situations.

Three Principles of Operant Conditioning Theory

To elaborate further, Skinner identified 3 types of responses. The 3 Principles of Operant Conditioning Theory. These principles constitute operant behavior.

Neutral operant

Neutral responses refer to those responses that do not affect the likelihood of repeating a behavior.


Reinforcers are responses that increase the likelihood of repeating a behavior.


Punisher refers to responses that decrease the likelihood of repeating a behavior.

Operant Behavior

Skinner distinguished between two different types of behaviors

Respondent behaviors

These are reflexive behaviors, such as pulling your hand back from a hot stove. You do not have to learn these behaviors, they occur involuntarily.

Operant behaviors

On the other hand, these behaviors are the ones under our conscious control. Some may occur spontaneously and others deliberately.

It is the consequences of these actions that influence whether or not they occur in the future.

Classical Conditioning

Skinner suggested that operant conditioning held far greater importance in contrast to classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning is learning by association or Pavlovian conditioning. As per this theory, two stimuli are linked together.

It is linked to produce a new learned response.  Pavlov stated that classical conditioning accounted for mostly respondent behaviors.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

The theory of operant conditioning states that when certain deliberate behavior is reinforced it will become more common.

Additionally, reinforcements can be categorized as:

  1. Positive reinforcement
  2. Negative reinforcement
  3. Punishment
  4. Extinction

Positive reinforcement

Classic examples of positive reinforcements include children completing errands or homework to earn a reward from their parents or teachers.

Negative reinforcement

This is common in the justice system. The judiciary often eases regulations on a well-behaved inmate. Therefore, sometimes, good behavior shortens punishments.

In reality, this is a classic negative reinforcement. Removing something unpleasant (days in jail) in response to a corrected behavior.


Punishment means adding something aversive to minimize an action. Spanking is the most common example.

Literally speaking, a child being disciplined for misbehavior through punishment.

A child associates punishment with negative behavior. Definitely, one does not enjoy the penalty. Therefore, he or she will cease to behave in this way to stop it.


Extinction is the removal of a stimulus to decrease a behavior. You take away something to decrease an answer.

For example, in class, if a student earns a gold star for an excellent test score, but in subsequent tests does not receive further gold stars, he may become increasingly unmotivated in future tests to perform well.

Therefore, timing and frequency are very important in reinforcement.

Timing and Frequency

The expectation or potential of incentives causes an increase in behavior in some of these cases.

Contrarily, operant conditioning is used to decrease a behavior.

The elimination of a positive effect or implementation of negative results can be used to minimize or prevent unwanted behaviors.

A child gets a warning. He or she will lose recess privileges if they speak in class out of turn.

A behavior that is significantly changed will reoccur.

Information should be delivered in small chunks in order to strengthen the response.

One way to provide positive reinforcement is to praise, inspire and applaud the subjects with a view to changing their behavior in the desired way.

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