Operant Conditioning

Behaviorist learning theory focuses on human behavior without consideration of any internal mental processes.  Behaviorists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner expanded the work of Ivan Pavlov and classical conditioning to apply conditioning to active learning principles.  Operant conditioning is defined as learning through the consequences of one’s own actions and behaviors and uses the principles of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment to influence learning and future behaviors (Stangor, 2010).  Operant conditioning is used by teachers, employers, and parents on a daily basis in modifying the behavior of students, employees, and children.  DolphinOperant conditioning is also the main method used in training animals, from pet dogs and cats to dolphins, sea lions, and orcas at aquariums and theme parks.

The foundation of operant conditioning is the system of reward and punishment used to teach new behaviors or correct maladaptive behavior.  Rewards, or reinforcements, are used to encourage and strengthen desired behavior; whereas punishment is used to discourage and weaken undesired behavior (Burgemeester, 2011, Stangor, 2010).  A positive reward or punishment adds a stimulus; while a negative reward or punishment removes a stimulus (Stangor, 2010).  The timing and frequency of the given reinforcement or punishment plays a large role in the rate at which a behavior is absorbed and extinguished (Stangor, 2010).

Positive punishment weakens undesired behavior by attaching an unpleasant stimulus to the behavior.  The goal of positive punishment is to extinguish poor behavior by associating the behavior with the unpleasant stimulus, lessening the likelihood of the behavior being repeated (Stangor, 2010).  Detention is given to students who act up in class and tickets are given to careless drivers to deter them from repeating this behavior in the future (Stangor, 2010).  Snapping a rubber band on one’s wrist in response to an undesired thought or behavior is another form of positive punishment.  Negative punishment is also used to weaken undesirable behavior; however, negative punishment involves the removal of a pleasant stimulus after the undesired behavior has emerged (Stangor, 2010).  Suspending a drunk driver’s license, taking a child’s video game away, or a spouse withholding affection after an argument are all forms of negative punishment.

Reinforcement is used to strengthen and teach desirable behavior and extinguish undesired behaviors.  A positive reinforcement attaches a pleasant stimulus to the desired response to encourage the development of the selected behavior (Stangor, 2010).  Awarding a child with money for earning good grades, giving an employee a raise for superior job performance, and giving a discount on one’s car insurance for being a good driver are all methods of providing positive reinforcement.  Negative reinforcement encourages behavior by removing or avoiding an unpleasant stimulus (Stangor, 2010).  Taking medication to reduce pain or treat an illness, using anti-aging creams and makeup to prevent wrinkles, or a husband putting his dirty clothes in the hamper to avoid his wife’s nagging all seek to avoid an unpleasant situation: pain, illness, wrinkles, or an angry spouse.  If the preventative behavior eliminates the unpleasant outcome, the behavior is more likely to be repeated in the future.

Ethical concerns must be taken into account when using any form of conditioning with humans and animals.  Punishment should never do physical or mental harm and reinforcement should be healthy and non-addictive.  Spanking a child as a form of positive punishment is ethically questionable due to the mental, as well as physical, harm that can occur in response. Likewise, medication taken to relieve pain as a form of negative reinforcement should be used selectively to prevent addiction.  When teaching or correcting behavior great care must be taken to ensure positive results and avoid negative consequences.


Burgemeester, A.  (2011).  Operant Conditioning Examples in Everyday Life.  Retrieved from http://whatispsychology.net/operant-conditioning-examples-in-everyday-life/

Stangor, C. (2010). Introduction to psychology. Irvington, NY: Flat World. Knowledge, Inc.


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