What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is the process by which people learn to behave in a certain way in order to obtain rewards and avoid punishment. This is a behavioral change that occurs due to purposeful causal reinforcement. When applied to behavioral therapy, operant conditioning can be used to create change based on rewards and punishments.

Most people use operant conditioning without even realizing it—especially when it comes to parenting and other behaviorally driven aspects of life. This article will explore how operant conditioning has evolved, what types of behaviors can be changed, and how it is used today.


Burrhus Frederic Skinner, commonly known as BF Skinner, was an American psychologist who spent his career studying the concept of behaviorism.

Behaviorism is a psychological approach that focuses on the use of conditioning to change behavior. Although the interest and use of behaviorism continued to evolve during the 20th century, Skinner is sometimes referred to as the father of operant conditioning for his work in advancing this field of therapy.

Psychologist John B. Watson laid the foundation for Skinner’s theory through his studies of classical conditioning. Experts in classical conditioning believe that behavior can be changed to shape a person’s automatic conditioning to anything.

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, focuses more on choice and intentional behavior. Skinner’s theory went a step further than earlier work by psychologist Edward Thorndike, who pointed out that satisfying experiences can be repeated.

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Skinner created the Operant Conditioning Box (or Skinner Box), a chamber used to switch off any environmental stimuli that might affect responses, in order to study the effects of specific stimuli on behavior.

how does this work

Sometimes called instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning relies on three factors:

  • Discriminatory Stimuli: This is the controlled stimulus or cue that occurs when the desired behavior is reinforced.
  • Reinforcers: These are “rewards” or “punishments” that lead to a change in behavior. Negative reinforcers can guide subjects to avoid repeating the behavior, while positive reinforcers can motivate subjects to continue a specific behavior.
  • Operant response: This is the behavior resulting from the use of discriminative stimuli and reinforcers.

These factors work together to increase or decrease the likelihood of repetitive behaviors.

Skinner points out that when, how, and how often the reinforcer is used is important. This aspect of operant conditioning is called reinforcement planning. These are the rules used to produce a specific response.

Typically, a reinforcement plan will include a specific interval or amount of time between reinforcements, how many responses to each reinforcer, and when or how often the reinforcement can be removed before the behavior ceases.

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What is mindfulness therapy?

type of behavior addressed

Behavioral therapy makes extensive use of operant conditioning in a variety of situations. In some cases, it can be used to try and get the subject to repeat the desired behavior.

For example, dogs learn to shake hands when you use an edible treat as a reward. If the treat is no longer offered, the dog is less likely to continue shaking hands – although it may take multiple “failures” for the dog to get the message that the treat is no longer offered. However, as long as the reward persists, the dog will likely continue to shake hands.

Operant conditioning can also be used to reduce unwanted behaviors. Examples of this might include being injured for dangerous activities or being fined for breaking the law. The punishment resulting from the behavior made the subject not want to continue the behavior.

Psychotherapy or talk therapy methods using operant conditioning can influence behavior in a variety of conditions in the clinical setting, including:

  • substance use disorder
  • anxiety
  • eating disorder
  • interpersonal problems
  • mood disorders
  • schizophrenia
  • sleep disorder
  • pressure
  • trauma recovery

What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy?


Behavioral therapy is used in psychotherapy to motivate good behaviors and discourage negative ones. Operant conditioning is more than a causal way of changing behavior, as it relies on motivating subjects to make specific choices, rather than relying solely on instinct.

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VigorTip words

Chances are, you’ve used operant conditioning — or have used it on you — without even realizing it. This is an example of operant conditioning when children are disenfranchised because of bad behavior, prompting them to choose better behavior in the future. Similarly, if a child receives a monetary or other reward for doing well, they will be more motivated to continue working towards high achievement in order to receive the reward.

Operant conditioning is a form of reinforcement that can be used to promote good choices and behaviors and discourage bad or undesired choices and behaviors.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is operant conditioning a type of hypnosis?

    Do not. Hypnosis means a trance state in which suggestive levels are elevated. Operant conditioning relies on selectively changing reinforcers to influence future behavior.

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    Can Hypnosis Help Treat Sleep Disorders?

  • Are rewards more effective than punishments?

    Both reward and punishment can be used for operant conditioning. Positive reinforcers are the introduction of desirable rewards to reinforce a particular behavior. A negative reinforcer is an unpleasant event whose removal follows a specific behavior. Negative reinforcement doesn’t always have to be a punishment.