Operant Conditioning in Psychology: Definition, History, Experiment, and Findings

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a way we learn based on consequences. It’s like a cycle: first, there’s something that happens (we call it a stimulus), then we do something in response (that’s our behavior), and finally, something else happens because of what we did (the consequence).

In this learning process, there are rewards (positive) and punishments (negative). Rewards make us more likely to do a behavior again, while punishments make us less likely to repeat it.

We’ve got different kinds of rewards: primary ones like food, shelter, and water – the basics for survival. Then there are secondary rewards, which are linked to primary ones. For example, if we get money (a secondary reward), we can buy lots of different things, like TVs or cars (which are primary rewards).

Operant conditioning is all about how our actions connect with what happens next. Good actions lead to good outcomes, and bad actions lead to bad outcomes. It’s a way we learn from experience, shaping our behavior based on what works and what doesn’t.

History of Operant Conditioning

The history of operant conditioning is marked by influential figures and their groundbreaking work. One of the key pioneers in this field was B.F. Skinner, whose ideas shaped operant conditioning as we know it today. Skinner’s book, “The Behavior of Organisms” (1938), laid the foundation for this theory.

Before Skinner, John B. Watson was a prominent behaviorist who rejected the study of internal mental events and focused solely on observable behavior. He conducted the famous “Little Albert” experiment in 1920, demonstrating how fears could be conditioned in children.

Read More: Classical Conditioning

However, it was Skinner who delved deeper into the complexities of behavior. His work in the 1930s and 1940s introduced the concept of operant conditioning, which emphasized the role of consequences in shaping behavior. Skinner’s book “Science and Human Behavior” (1953) further elucidated his ideas. He believed that studying the causes and consequences of actions was essential for understanding behavior.

Skinner’s research involved experiments with animals, especially pigeons and rats, in controlled environments called “Skinner boxes.” These experiments revealed how behavior could be modified through reinforcement and punishment. Skinner’s work revolutionized psychology, emphasizing the importance of external factors in learning and behavior.

The history of operant conditioning has its roots in the early 20th century, with Watson’s behaviorism and Skinner’s groundbreaking research. Their contributions laid the groundwork for the modern understanding of how consequences influence and shape our behavior.

Key Elements of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, a fundamental concept in psychology, involves four key elements that shape how we learn and adapt our behaviors:

Behavior Shaping

This element is like molding clay. Behavior shaping is the process of gradually teaching and refining a behavior by rewarding small steps toward the desired goal. It’s akin to training a dog to perform tricks. Instead of expecting the entire behavior right away, you reward and reinforce small, successive approximations of the desired behavior. For instance, if you want your dog to sit, you might first reward them for simply lowering their rear end slightly.

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Reinforcement is like a pat on the back for doing something well. It’s a consequence that follows a behavior and increases the likelihood of that behavior happening again. There are two types of reinforcement: positive and negative. Positive reinforcement adds something desirable, like giving a treat to reinforce good behavior. Negative reinforcement removes something undesirable, like turning off a loud alarm when you fasten your seatbelt in a car.


This is the consequence that discourages a behavior from recurring. Punishment can be positive, like scolding a child for misbehaving, or negative, such as taking away a privilege like screen time. The aim is to make the behavior less likely to happen in the future.

Reinforcement Schedule

This refers to the pattern or timing of delivering reinforcement. There are four main types: fixed interval (rewards after a set time), variable interval (rewards after unpredictable time intervals), fixed ratio (rewards after a set number of responses), and variable ratio (rewards after an unpredictable number of responses). These schedules influence the speed and persistence of learning.

Skinner’s Experiment (Skinner Box)

B.F. Skinner’s “Skinner Box” experiment was a pivotal study in the field of psychology that delved into how animals, particularly rats and pigeons, learn and adapt their behavior when they encounter rewards or punishments. This experiment, conducted in the mid-20th century, provided essential insights into the principles of operant conditioning, which is a form of learning that centers around the consequences of our actions.

The Skinner Box Setup: Imagine a small, enclosed chamber resembling a box. Inside this controlled environment, Skinner placed animals, such as rats or pigeons. Crucially, there was a mechanism—a lever or a button—that the animals could interact with.

Positive Reinforcement: Skinner’s primary focus was to understand how animals respond to positive reinforcement, which means they receive rewards for certain behaviors. In one version of the experiment, he trained rats to press a lever, and when they did, they received a delicious food pellet as a reward.

Read More: Clinical Psychology – Definition, History, Approaches, and Careers

Key Findings and Insights

Here are the key finding of Skinner’s experiment.

  • Operant Conditioning: The Skinner Box experiments confirmed the concept of operant conditioning, which suggests that behavior is shaped by its consequences. When rats realized that pressing the lever led to a food reward, they quickly learned to repeat this action.
  • Variable Schedules: Skinner introduced the idea of reinforcement schedules. Instead of giving food every single time the lever was pressed, he sometimes rewarded the rats after a fixed number of lever presses (fixed ratio) or after varying numbers of presses (variable ratio). Skinner’s work revealed that variable schedules, similar to how slot machines operate, were highly effective in maintaining behavior.
  • Extinction: Importantly, when Skinner ceased providing food rewards for lever-pressing, the rats gradually stopped engaging in that behavior. This phenomenon, known as extinction, showed that behaviors could diminish if they were no longer reinforced.
  • Generalization and Discrimination: Skinner also explored how animals could generalize learning (applying knowledge from one situation to another) and discriminate (recognize differences). For instance, a rat might learn that pressing a blue button, but not a red one, led to food.

Applications and Examples of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning also called instrumental conditioning, a fundamental concept in psychology, finds its way into various aspects of our daily lives, often without us realizing it. This process of learning through consequences – rewards and punishments – shapes behaviors and influences how we interact with the world. Here are five practical applications:

Education: Shaping Young Mind

Operant conditioning plays a significant role in education. Teachers use positive reinforcement, such as praise or gold stars, to encourage good behavior and academic achievements. When students are rewarded for completing assignments or participating in class discussions, they’re more likely to repeat these behaviors, fostering a conducive learning environment.

Parenting: Raising Responsible Children

Parents often employ operant conditioning techniques to instill discipline and good manners in their children. When a child receives praise or a small reward for completing chores or showing politeness, these behaviors become habitual. Conversely, time-outs or loss of privileges serve as forms of punishment to discourage undesirable conduct.

Read More: Abnormal Psychology – Definition, History, Approaches, and Criticisms

Animal Training: From Pets to Performers

Operant conditioning techniques are prevalent in training animals. Whether it’s teaching a dog to sit on command or a dolphin to perform tricks at a marine park, trainers use rewards like treats or positive attention to reinforce desired actions. This method makes the animals more likely to repeat these actions in the future.

Addiction Recovery: Breaking the Cycle

In addiction treatment, operant conditioning principles are applied to help individuals overcome substance abuse. Programs may use a reward system to incentivize clean living, offering tokens or privileges for meeting sobriety milestones. This reinforces abstinence by associating it with positive outcomes.

Employee Productivity: Encouraging Efficiency

In the workplace, operant conditioning can motivate employees to excel. Performance-based bonuses, promotions, or recognition serve as positive reinforcements, encouraging workers to meet or exceed job expectations. Likewise, disciplinary actions may be used as punishments to deter undesirable workplace behaviors.

Criticism of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, despite its widespread use and success in explaining many aspects of behavior, has faced several criticisms over the years:

  • Mechanistic View: One criticism is that operant conditioning can be overly mechanistic, treating organisms as mere input-output machines. Critics argue that it sometimes overlooks the complexity of human behavior, emotions, and cognition, which are not always easily reducible to simple stimulus-response patterns.
  • Ethical Concerns: The use of punishment in operant conditioning has raised ethical concerns. Punishment, especially when severe or applied inconsistently, can lead to unintended negative consequences, such as aggression or anxiety. Critics emphasize the importance of using positive reinforcement rather than punishment whenever possible.
  • Limited Generalizability: Some critics argue that operant conditioning experiments often take place in controlled laboratory settings, which may not accurately reflect real-world conditions. This limitation can affect the generalizability of findings to everyday life situations.
  • Cultural and Individual Differences: Operant conditioning principles may not apply uniformly across all cultures and individuals. What serves as a reinforcer or punishment can vary significantly depending on cultural norms and individual preferences.
  • Lack of Cognitive Factors: Operant conditioning focuses primarily on observable behaviors and may not adequately address cognitive processes such as thinking, problem-solving, or memory, which are essential aspects of human learning and behavior.

Read More: Abnormal Behavior – Definition, Symptoms, and Examples

Operant Conditioning Vs. Classical Conditioning

Operant conditioning and classical conditioning are two distinct forms of associative learning. Classical conditioning centers on the association between a neutral stimulus and an automatic, reflexive response, while operant conditioning focuses on the relationship between voluntary behaviors and their consequences.

Classical conditioning deals with involuntary, reflexive responses, such as Pavlov’s dog salivating at the sound of a bell, while operant conditioning pertains to voluntary, goal-directed behaviors, such as a rat pressing a lever for food rewards.

The key elements and principles in each form of conditioning differ, with classical conditioning emphasizing stimulus-response associations and operant conditioning highlighting response-consequence relationships. These two approaches contribute to our understanding of learning but operate on different fundamentals and find applications in various contexts.


  1. Staddon JE, Cerutti DT. Operant conditioningAnnu Rev Psychol. 2003;54:115-44. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124
  2. Skinner, B.F. (1991). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. Copley.
  3. Rilling M. How the challenge of explaining learning influenced the origins and development of John B. Watson’s behaviorismAm J Psychol. 2000;113(2):275-301.
  4. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning
  5. Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
  6. https://pressbooks-dev.oer.hawaii.edu/psychology/chapter/operant-conditioning/

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