What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a learning process that involves the use of reinforcement and punishment. It is a type of behavioral learning and it is widely used in education, clinical settings, and research.

Key Concepts

A key concept in operant conditioning is the idea that a behavior changes in response to an environmental stimulus. A positive reinforcer increases the likelihood that a behavior will occur, while a negative punishment decreases the likelihood of a behavior occurring.

Lab Environment

In a laboratory environment, operant conditioning is often used to train animals, including rats and mice, to perform specific tasks. For example, a rat that presses a lever when a green light is on receives a food pellet as a reward. However, a rat that presses the lever when the red light is on will receive a mild electric shock as a consequence of its behavior.

Everyday Life

While it is common to see these types of experiments at zoos and bird shows, the principle behind them is also relevant to everyday life. If you have ever visited a zoo and noticed that some of the birds and animals there have stereotypical behaviors, such as pacing or swimming patterns, you may be surprised to learn that these behaviors are based on operant conditioning principles.

Theory and Development

The theory of operant conditioning was first developed in the 19th century by psychologist Edward Thorndike, who posited that people tend to follow a certain pattern of behavior based on whether or not the consequences of their actions are satisfying or painful. The result is that people who engage in behaviors that lead to pleasant outcomes will be more likely to repeat them.

Expansion by Skinner

Skinner, the founder of behavioral psychology, later expanded upon Thorndike’s theory and added to it the notion that the learning process was based on rewards and punishments. The result was a theory that is still in use today.

Stimuli Used

Many different kinds of stimuli are used to condition animals, but the main ones are reinforcers and punishments. Reinforcement is the addition of a positive stimulus or a change in an animal’s environment, while punishment is the removal of a negative stimulus or an increase in the environment.

Simultaneous Use

In some situations, both can be used simultaneously. For example, if you teach your child to clean their room when you visit, they will likely continue doing so until you take away their phone. Similarly, if you tell your partner to stop sending you text messages, they will likely continue doing so until you ignore their messages. The difference between these two methods of rewarding or punishing behavior is that you have to be there to actually respond.

Learning Process

This is why the process of learning with operant conditioning takes time and can be a very complicated one. Some animals have to go through several training sessions to fully understand how to react to stimuli.


Another important component of operant conditioning is extinction, which occurs when a behavior no longer receives reinforcement. If your child does not clean their room, or if they do not get punished when they break a rule in class, then their behavior can decline over time.

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