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Operant Conditioning: What Is It and How Does It Work?


Operant conditioning - Dr. Axe

Operant (or instrumental) and classical (or Pavlovian) conditioning are considered by psychologists to be the simplest forms of learning. A 2018 study published in Frontiers in Psychology states, “By way of operant conditioning, human behavior is continuously shaped and maintained by its consequences.”

What is operant conditioning used for? Depending on the situation, it can help mold a wide variety of behaviors.

For example, it helps explain how babies learn to communicate, how children learn to cooperate in schools and how adults form habits (both good and bad).

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning (OC), also called instrumental conditioning, describes the process of learning by making associations between particular behaviors and consequences.

OC was first described by psychologist Burrhus Frederic (B.F.) Skinner in the 1930 and ’40s. He is now considered the “father of operant conditioning.”

What are the main principles of operant conditioning? 

  • OC focuses on voluntary behaviors, rather than those that are unconscious and automatic, along with rewards and punishments, which help form behaviors.
  • Behaviors that are followed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, while those that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated. This is called the “Law of Effect – Reinforcement.”
  • According to operant conditioning theory, actions that are reinforced tend to be strengthened, while those that aren’t reinforced tend to die out or be extinguished and weakened.
  • Punishment is considered the opposite of reinforcement and is used to weaken or eliminate unwanted responses.
  • “Positive reinforcement” strengthens a behavior by providing rewards. “Negative reinforcement” does the opposite: It works by removing an unpleasant stimulus or experience.

What does the “operant” in operant conditioning mean? It basically describes different types of responses.

Operants are considered “active behaviors that operate upon the environment to generate consequences.” According to Skinner, there are three types of responses, or operants, that can follow behaviors:

  • Neutral operants — These are “neutral” and don’t influence whether a behavior is repeated.
  • Reinforcers — These increase the probability of a behavior being repeated
  • Punishers — These decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.


What are the four types of operant conditioning? The main types of operant conditioning are:

  • Positive reinforcement
  • Negative reinforcement
  • Positive punishment
  • Negative punishment

As you can see, reinforcement can be either positive or negative. Both increase the chances of a behavior continuing.

  • Positive reinforcers include praise, rewards, attention, food, gifts, etc. In a “token economy,” other positive reinforcers can include fake money, buttons, poker chips, stickers, likes, etc.
  • Negative reinforcers usually involve the removal of an undesired or unpleasant outcome. This is actually rewarding, since it decreases something that is unpleasant from being experienced.

Punishment causes a decrease in a behavior.

  • Positive punishment is when unfavorable events or outcomes are given after a behavior. This is how aversion therapy works, in which a person associates a behavior with an undesirable stimulus, making that person want to stop it.
  • Negative punishment is when a desirable outcome is removed after a behavior.

Classical vs. Operant Conditioning

What is the difference between classical and operant conditioning? While classical conditioning involves automatic or reflexive responses, operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behaviors.

The field of behaviorism in psychology assumes that all behavior is determined by one’s environment. The definition of classical conditioning is “learning through association.”

It involves associations made between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.

In order to help people improve their habits and lives, B.F Skinner believed that it was most productive to study observable behaviors, rather than internal (unconscious) mental events. Skinner felt that classical conditioning was “too simplistic” and that a better way to understand complex human behaviors was to study the effects of punishments and rewards on controllable behaviors.

How It Works

A reinforcement schedule is any procedure that delivers a reinforcer.

According to the Simply Psychology website, “Behaviorists discovered that different patterns (or schedules) of reinforcement had different effects on the speed of learning and extinction.”

Below are the main schedules of reinforcement:

  • Continuous Reinforcement — When an action is positively reinforced every time.
  • Fixed Ratio Reinforcement — When an action is reinforced only after the behavior occurs a specified number of times.
  • Fixed Interval Reinforcement —  Reinforcement is given after a fixed time interval.
  • Variable Ratio Reinforcement — When an action is reinforced after an unpredictable number of times.
  • Variable Interval Reinforcement — A correct response has been made, but reinforcement is given after an unpredictable amount of time.

Operant Conditioning Examples

What are some examples of operant conditioning? One of the most famous operant conditioning examples is Skinner’s rat study.

He put hungry rats in his “Skinner box” that contained a lever that when pushed would release a food pellet. The rats learned to press the lever in order to receive food pellets, and since this was rewarding for them, they repeated this action over and over.

This is a very basic example of positive reinforcement, one that Skinner believed could be applied to humans as well.

There are hundreds of ways reinforcement and punishment take place on a daily basis in our lives.

Here are some other operant conditioning examples in everyday life:

  • Students are rewarded with good grades, praise and gold stars when they do well on a test, so this makes the students likely to study and try hard again in the future.
  • Someone feels sick after drinking too much alcohol, so that person avoids doing this again in the future.
  • A employee gets a promotion after completing a challenging project and working long hours, so she continues to keep up the work.
  • If a child is rewarded every time he completes three chores, this is an example of fixed ratio reinforcement.
  • Being paid by the hour is an example of fixed interval reinforcement.
  • Winning money when gambling or playing the lotto would be an example of variable ratio reinforcement.
  • A business owner being rewarded with payment from new clients would be an example of variable interval reinforcement.

Applications (Benefits/Uses)

Any type of “behavior modification” program involves aspects of operant conditioning. Therapists may work with clients to change the types of “punishments and rewards” that the clients receive following behaviors/actions in order to improve habits, health and quality of life.

Altering someone’s environment, as well mindset and thought patterns, can also play a role in behavior modification.

You’ll recall that the underlying application of operant conditioning is reinforcement of desired behaviors and punishing of undesired ones. Here are some benefits and uses in both therapy settings and everyday life:

  • A “token economy” is used in some psychiatric settings — as well as prisons, rehab programs and classrooms — to reward people when they behave appropriately, such as with snacks, extra privileges, gifts, praise, etc.
  • In classrooms/school settings, compliments, approval, encouragement and affirmations are given to students to help them learn and behave. Unwanted behaviors, such as talking in class too much and tardiness, can be extinguished through punishment or being ignored by the teacher, rather than praised.
  • Time-out in classrooms or at home is also an example of extinction, since it removes a child from a situation, leading to an undesirable outcome that reduces their behavior.
  • Both classical and operant conditioning can be effective in treating specific problems, such as bed-wetting, drug addictions, phobias and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD).
  • OC has applications in language acquisition and development among children, too.

OC plays a role in many types of behavioral therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy and neurofeedback therapy. For example, in CBT or other forms of psychotherapy, a patient can gain insight about his/her own behaviors, thoughts and feelings, which helps her/him identify distortions and change actions.

By applying critical thinking to one’s own thoughts, it can be possible to reinforce positive thoughts and actions and to weaken those that are dysfunctional.

Risks and Side Effects

Because operant conditioning is involved in habit formation, it can contribute to development of unhealthy habits and even addictions if you’re not careful.

Building self-awareness thorough practices like journaling, reflecting and mindfulness meditation can help you identify destructive habits that you’d like to change. While it’s possible to alter your behavior on your own, working with a therapist is recommended if you’re struggling with an addiction, phobia or another serious problem.

This can reduce the potential for making symptoms like anxiety and substance abuse worse.


  • What is operant conditioning? OC, also called instrumental conditioning, describes the process of learning by making associations between particular behaviors and consequences.
  • B.F Skinner is considered the father of OC and first described this type of learning in the 1940s. His theory was that behaviors that are followed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, while those that are followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated.
  • Operant conditioning examples in everyday life include students/children being rewarded for good grades and behaviors; employees being rewarded for hard work with promotions and raises that reinforces their effort; and animals being trained with treats.
  • The difference between classical and operant conditioning is that OC focuses on voluntary, observable behaviors, while classical conditioning focuses on automatic, unconscious responses.

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