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Introduction to Operant Conditioning

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Operant Conditioning

Psychologist B.F. Skinner was the first to describe operant conditioning.

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What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Operant conditioning was coined by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, which is why you may occasionally hear it referred to as Skinnerian conditioning. As a behaviorist, Skinner believed that internal thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behavior. Instead, he suggested, we should look only at the external, observable causes of human behavior.

Skinner used the term operant to refer to any "active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences" (1953). In other words, Skinner's theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit each and every day.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

We can find examples of operant conditioning at work all around us. Consider the case of children completing homework to earn a reward from a parent or teacher, or employees finishing projects to receive praise or promotions.

In these examples, the promise or possibility of rewards causes an increase in behavior, but operant conditioning can also be used to decrease a behavior. The removal of a desirable outcome or the application of a negative outcome can be used to decrease or prevent undesirable behaviors. For example, a child may be told they will lose recess privileges if they talk out of turn in class. This potential for punishment may lead to a decrease in disruptive behaviors.

Components of Operant Conditioning

Some key concepts in operant conditioning:

Reinforcement is any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of reinforcers:

  1. Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or behavior is strengthened by the addition of something, such as praise or a direct reward.

  2. Negative reinforcers involve the removal of an unfavorable events or outcomes after the display of a behavior. In these situations, a response is strengthened by the removal of something considered unpleasant.

In both of these cases of reinforcement, the behavior increases.

Punishment, on the other hand, is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behavior it follows. There are two kinds of punishment:

  1. Positive punishment, sometimes referred to as punishment by application, involves the presentation of an unfavorable event or outcome in order to weaken the response it follows.

  2. Negative punishment, also known as punishment by removal, occurs when an favorable event or outcome is removed after a behavior occurs.

In both of these cases of punishment, the behavior decreases.

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