Operant Conditioning

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Created by: Team English - Examples.com, Last Updated: June 18, 2024

Operant Conditioning

Dog trainers often use treats and encouraging actions and words to teach their dogs specific tricks and behaviors. This is a common example of operant conditioning in action.

What Is Operant Conditioning? 

Operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning is a behavioral learning tool that allows people to reinforce or decrease the occurrence of a specific observable behavior or action. This type of conditioning is very instrumental, which means that the person will need to use various types of reinforcement and punishment to conduct the operant conditioning.

Operant Conditioning Examples in Everyday Life

  1. Rewards for Good Grades: Children receive money or gifts for achieving high grades.
  2. Parking Tickets: Receiving a fine for parking illegally discourages the behavior.
  3. Loyalty Cards: Stores give points or discounts to customers, encouraging repeat visits.
  4. Fitness Tracker Goals: Meeting daily fitness goals is rewarded with badges or social recognition.
  5. Speeding Fines: Fines deter drivers from speeding.
  6. Household Chores for Allowance: Children do chores in exchange for weekly allowances.
  7. Late Fees: Late fees on bills discourage late payments.
  8. Employee Bonuses: Employees receive bonuses for surpassing performance targets.
  9. Discount Coupons: Coupons encourage customers to buy certain products.
  10. Smoking Bans: Fines or social disapproval discourage public smoking.
  11. Recycling Incentives: Rewards or discounts are given for recycling.
  12. Public Recognition: Public praise for charitable acts encourages more of such behavior.
  13. TV Time for Homework: Children get to watch TV only after completing homework.
  14. Diet Tracking Apps: Apps that reward users for logging meals and staying within calorie limits.
  15. Social Media Likes: Posting content that gathers likes encourages similar future posts.

Operant Conditioning Examples in Media

  1. Advertising Rewards: Ads reward viewers with promotional codes.
  2. Subscription Models: Lower prices for annual subscriptions encourage longer commitments.
  3. Clickbait Titles: Titles that promise exciting content increase viewer clicks.
  4. Social Media Challenges: Participation in challenges can lead to rewards or recognition.
  5. Viewer Ratings: Shows are continued or canceled based on viewer ratings.
  6. Feedback Mechanisms: Media platforms use like/dislike buttons to shape content.
  7. Contests and Giveaways: Participation is encouraged by the chance to win prizes.
  8. Pay-Per-View Events: Special events encourage viewers to pay for exclusive access.
  9. Interactive Polls: Media outlets use polls to engage viewers and encourage participation.
  10. Premium Content: Access to exclusive content for subscribing or engaging with ads.
  11. Reward-Based Games: Games that offer in-game rewards for viewing ads.
  12. Sponsorship Deals: Media personalities promote products for rewards.
  13. Endorsements: Celebrities endorse products, influencing viewer behavior.
  14. Viewer Comments: Allowing viewers to comment can increase engagement.
  15. Sharing Incentives: Rewards for sharing content on social media.

Operant Conditioning Examples in Animals

  1. Treats for Tricks: Dogs get treats for performing tricks.
  2. Clicker Training: Animals learn to associate a click sound with a reward.
  3. Habitat Rewards: Animals receive more comfortable habitats for desired behaviors.
  4. Negative Reinforcement in Training: Removal of an uncomfortable harness when the desired behavior is performed.
  5. Feeding Times: Animals are fed at specific times after performing tasks.
  6. Electric Fences: Livestock learn to avoid areas with mild electric shocks.
  7. Litter Box Training: Cats are rewarded for using the litter box.
  8. Aquarium Shows: Marine animals perform tricks in exchange for food.
  9. Noise Aversion: Use of aversive sounds to discourage unwanted behaviors.
  10. Behavioral Enrichment: Providing toys or activities that encourage natural behaviors.
  11. Avoidance Training: Training animals to avoid dangerous situations for safety.
  12. Social Isolation: Separating animals from the group to discourage aggression.
  13. Companion Pairing: Animals rewarded with companionship for calm behaviors.
  14. Territorial Marking: Animals learn that certain behaviors will secure territory.
  15. Conditioned Release: Wildlife trained to perform behaviors for release into the wild.

Operant Conditioning Examples in Dogs

  1. Sit Command: Dogs sit to receive a treat.
  2. Leash Training: Walking nicely on a leash results in more walk time.
  3. Barking Deterrents: Devices emit unpleasant sounds to reduce barking.
  4. Crate Training: Dogs get comfortable bedding in their crate after entering calmly.
  5. Agility Training: Dogs maneuver through obstacle courses for rewards.
  6. Socialization Rewards: Positive interactions with other dogs are rewarded.
  7. Potty Training: Dogs are rewarded for going to the bathroom outside.
  8. Fetch: Dogs are thrown a ball again after returning it.
  9. Stay Command: Staying put until released earns a treat.
  10. Gentle Leader: Reduced pulling is rewarded with more comfortable walks.
  11. Noise Desensitization: Gradual exposure to noises paired with treats reduces fear.
  12. Guard Training: Rewards for alerting to strangers.
  13. Behavior Correction: Removing attention to discourage jumping up.
  14. Diet Rewards: Healthier treats for weight management.
  15. Patience Training: Waiting calmly for food or toys is rewarded.

How Operant Conditioning Works?

Operant conditioning is a learning process through which the strength of a behavior is modified by reinforcement or punishment. It is based on the idea that behaviors followed by positive outcomes are more likely to be repeated, whereas those followed by negative outcomes are less likely to be repeated. In this method, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence. For example, if a behavior results in a reward, the behavior is reinforced and thus more likely to occur again in the future; conversely, if a behavior leads to a punishment, it becomes suppressed. This type of conditioning is central to behaviorist theory, which emphasizes changes in observable behaviors through controlled stimuli.

Process of Operant Conditioning

  1. Establishing Baseline Behavior: Before conditioning begins, the natural frequency of the target behavior is established. This is known as the baseline.
  2. Choosing a Reinforcer or Punisher: Depending on the desired outcome (increase or decrease in behavior), an appropriate reinforcer or punisher is selected.
  3. Application of Reinforcer or Punisher: The chosen consequence is applied following the target behavior. The timing and frequency of this application are crucial for the conditioning process.
  4. Shaping: If the desired behavior is complex, shaping may be used. Shaping involves reinforcing successive approximations of the target behavior. Small steps towards the ultimate goal are identified and reinforced, gradually leading to the desired behavior.
  5. Extinction: If reinforcement stops, the conditioned behavior may decrease over time, a process known as extinction.
  6. Generalization and Discrimination: Generalization occurs when a conditioned behavior is elicited by stimuli that are similar but not identical to the original situation. Discrimination involves the ability to distinguish between similar stimuli and respond only to the one that is reinforced.
  7. Continuous and Partial Reinforcement: Reinforcement can be given every time the desired behavior occurs (continuous reinforcement) or only part of the time (partial or intermittent reinforcement). Partial reinforcement is often more effective in maintaining learned behavior over time.

Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner, a prominent psychologist, developed the theory of operant conditioning, which is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an individual makes an association between a particular behavior and a consequence. Skinner’s theory is a form of behaviorism, which posits that all behaviors are acquired through conditioning.

  • Operants: These are active behaviors that operate upon the environment to generate consequences.
  • Reinforcers: These are events that follow an operant and increase the likelihood of the behavior occurring again. Reinforcers can be positive (adding something desirable) or negative (removing something undesirable).
  • Punishers: In contrast to reinforcers, punishers are consequences that follow a behavior and decrease its occurrence. Punishment also can be positive (adding something undesirable) or negative (removing something desirable).
  • Extinction: This occurs when a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced, leading to a decrease in the frequency of the behavior.

Skinner’s Pigeon Experiment

B.F. Skinner, a renowned psychologist, conducted various experiments on pigeons to explore the principles of operant conditioning. These experiments primarily focused on how behavior could be influenced by reinforcement or punishment.

Experiment Details

In his pigeon experiments, Skinner placed pigeons in a special cage, often referred to as a “Skinner box.” This setup included a lever or a key that could be pecked. When the pigeon pecked the key, it sometimes resulted in the delivery of food as a reward, depending on the conditions set by Skinner for the experiment.

One of Skinner’s most famous observations from these experiments was the development of what he termed “superstitious behavior” in pigeons. When food was delivered at random times irrespective of the pigeon’s behavior, the pigeons began to associate whatever action they were performing at the time of food delivery with the receipt of food. Consequently, they started to repeat these actions, hoping to receive more food, even though their actions had no actual impact on food delivery.


This experiment highlighted several key points about behavioral conditioning:

  • Reinforcement Schedules: Skinner experimented with different schedules of reinforcement (e.g., fixed interval and variable ratio) to study how these schedules affected the rate and pattern of responses.
  • Superstitious Behavior: The concept of superstitious behavior in pigeons demonstrated that behaviors could be conditioned even without a direct cause-and-effect relationship.
  • Applications to Other Fields: Skinner’s findings have been applied in various fields, including education, behavioral therapy, and animal training, underscoring the broad influence of operant conditioning principles.


Operant conditioning can be applied in various settings, including education, behavioral therapy, and animal training. Educators use it to encourage good classroom behavior, therapists to modify aberrant behaviors, and animal trainers to elicit complex behaviors from animals.


Skinner’s work has had a profound impact on modern psychology, particularly in the areas of behavior modification and educational psychology, providing effective techniques for managing behavior and understanding learning processes.

Principles of Operant Conditioning


Reinforcement is a core concept in operant conditioning and it strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding.

  • Positive Reinforcement: Involves presenting a motivating/rewarding stimulus to the person after the desired behavior is exhibited, making the behavior more likely to happen in the future.
  • Negative Reinforcement: This occurs when a certain stimulus (usually an aversive stimulus) is removed after a particular behavior is exhibited. The likelihood of the particular behavior occurring again in the future is increased because of removing/avoiding the negative consequence.


Punishment, by contrast, is a control method that discourages undesirable behavior by adding a negative consequence or withdrawing a positive stimulus.

  • Positive Punishment: Adds an unfavorable outcome or event following an undesired behavior. For example, adding extra chores when a child misbehaves.
  • Negative Punishment: This involves taking something good or desirable away to reduce the occurrence of a particular behavior. For example, removing a favorite toy when a child misbehaves.


Extinction occurs when the reinforcements that accompany a behavior are removed, leading to the reduction or disappearance of the behavior over time. For example, if a behavior previously reinforced through positive reinforcement is no longer reinforced, the behavior gradually diminishes.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Schedules of reinforcement are the specific rules that define the timing and frequency of reinforcements in relation to the behavior. These can be either fixed or variable:

  • Fixed-Ratio Schedule: Provides reinforcement after a fixed number of responses. This might involve giving a reward every fifth time a behavior occurs.
  • Variable-Ratio Schedule: Provides reinforcement after a variable number of responses, which are unpredictable. This schedule tends to create a high, steady rate of responding.
  • Fixed-Interval Schedule: Reinforcement is given after a fixed time period, as long as there is at least one response.
  • Variable-Interval Schedule: Reinforcement is provided after a variable time interval, making the reinforcement unpredictable.


Shaping involves reinforcing behaviors that are progressively closer to the desired behavior. This technique can be used to train new behaviors by breaking them down into small, manageable steps and rewarding the individual as each step is successfully demonstrated.

Types of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning can be divided into several types based on the nature of the consequences and the strategy used to influence behavior:

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement occurs when a behavior is followed by a rewarding stimulus, increasing the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated. For example, giving a dog a treat for sitting on command encourages the dog to repeat the behavior.

Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an aversive stimulus when a desired behavior occurs. This also increases the likelihood of the behavior’s recurrence. For example, the sound of a car’s seatbelt alarm stops once the seatbelt is buckled, reinforcing the behavior of buckling the seatbelt.

Positive Punishment

Also known as punishment by application, positive punishment occurs when a behavior leads to an unwanted consequence, decreasing the likelihood of the behavior happening again. For example, adding extra chores when a child misses curfew to discourage lateness.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment, or punishment by removal, involves taking away a pleasant stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. For example, removing a teenager’s gaming console as a consequence for poor academic performance.


Extinction happens when the reinforcements maintaining a behavior are removed, leading to the gradual reduction of the behavior. For example, if a teacher stops acknowledging a student’s constant talking out of turn, the behavior might decrease over time.

How to Apply Operant Conditioning in the Classroom

Operant conditioning is a very useful behavioral learning tool that has plenty of real-life applications. Teachers can use operant conditioning in their classrooms to help manage the behaviors and actions of their students. These operant conditioning techniques include the application of various rules and encouragement of students in the classroom.

1.) Using Positive Reinforcement in the Classroom

Teachers and mentors can use positive reinforcement to help increase the student’s participation and performance. You can encourage students to participate in the lesson more via rewards and encouragement. Not only that, but you can also add different flourishes and tools the student may use to improve themselves.

2.) Using Negative Reinforcement in the Classroom

Teachers and mentors can use negative reinforcement to increase the likelihood of the student’s obedience and predilection for bad or illicit behavior. This can be done through the implementation of rules in the classroom. If a student breaks a specific rule the teacher or mentor may cancel specific activities or events to prevent or discourage the student from breaking said behavior.

3.) Using Positive Punishment in the Classroom

Teachers and mentors can use positive punishment to decrease the likelihood of a student doing an action that is illicit or against the rule. This can come in the form of adding rules and punishments to prevent bad behavior from happening. Not only that but scolding a student is also another common example of positive punishment.

4.) Using Negative Punishment in the Classroom

Teachers and mentors can use negative punishment to decrease the occurrence of behavior that they don’t want their students to exhibit, by taking away something that is seen as positive by the student. Examples of negative punishment include the taking away or confiscation of something the student likes.

Classical vs Operant Conditioning

FeatureClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
DefinitionA learning process where an association is made between a naturally occurring stimulus and a previously neutral stimulus.A learning process where behaviors are influenced by their consequences.
FounderIvan PavlovB.F. Skinner
Type of ResponseInvoluntary, automatic responsesVoluntary, controlled responses
Stimulus TimingStimulus precedes the behavior.Stimulus follows the behavior.
Behavior BasisElicited by the stimulus.Emitted by the subject.
Key ConceptsUnconditioned stimulus (UCS), conditioned stimulus (CS), unconditioned response (UCR), conditioned response (CR).Reinforcement (positive and negative), punishment.
ExamplesSalivating when smelling food (after conditioning to associate food with another stimulus like a bell).A rat pressing a lever to receive food or avoid a shock.
PurposeTo create a new association between a stimulus and a response.To increase or decrease the likelihood of a behavior’s occurrence.

Applications of Operant Conditioning in Psychology


In educational settings, operant conditioning is utilized to enhance learning and classroom management. Teachers often use reinforcement techniques to encourage good behavior and academic performance. For example:

  • Positive reinforcement: Rewarding students with praise, good grades, or privileges when they exhibit desired behaviors.
  • Negative reinforcement: Removing an unpleasant stimulus, such as postponing a quiz, when students meet a prior condition like submitting all assignments on time.
  • Punishment: Applying consequences such as detention or loss of privileges to reduce undesirable behaviors.

These strategies help in shaping a conducive learning environment and promoting effective study habits.


Operant conditioning is also a cornerstone of behavioral therapy, especially in treating disorders like ADHD, autism, and behavioral problems. Therapists use reinforcement to shape desired behaviors and reduce undesired ones. For example:

  • Token economies: Clients earn tokens for displaying appropriate behavior, which can be exchanged for desirable items or privileges. This is commonly used in settings involving children with autism.
  • Contingency contracts: Written agreements between the therapist and the client outline the consequences (reinforcements or punishments) associated with performing or not performing certain behaviors.

Animal Training

Animal trainers widely apply operant conditioning principles to train animals, from domestic pets to performance animals in zoos and circuses. Techniques include:

  • Positive reinforcement: Giving treats or affection when an animal performs a desired action.
  • Clicker training: Using a clicker device to mark the exact moment an animal does something correctly, followed by a reward. This method helps the animal associate the sound with positive reinforcement.

Self-Improvement and Habit Formation

Operant conditioning can be applied to personal habit formation and self-improvement by setting up personal rewards and penalties. For instance:

  • Self-rewarding: Allocating personal time, treats, or small purchases as rewards for accomplishing personal goals like exercising or completing tasks.
  • Self-punishment: Setting a penalty (such as donating to a cause one dislikes) for failing to meet personal commitments.

Workplace Management

In the workplace, operant conditioning can enhance productivity and employee satisfaction. Employers may implement systems of incentives and rewards to encourage performance and loyalty. Examples include bonuses for reaching targets, employee of the month awards, and company outings for team achievements.

Who discovered operant conditioning?

B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, developed the concept of operant conditioning in the early 20th century.

How does operant conditioning work?

It works by applying reinforcement or punishment after a behavior to increase or decrease its occurrence in the future.

What is reinforcement in operant conditioning?

Reinforcement is a stimulus that increases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

What are the types of reinforcement?

There are two main types: positive reinforcement (adding something pleasant) and negative reinforcement (removing something unpleasant).

What is punishment in operant conditioning?

Punishment is a stimulus that decreases the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

What are the types of punishment?

There are two main types: positive punishment (adding something unpleasant) and negative punishment (removing something pleasant).

Can operant conditioning affect emotions?

Yes, operant conditioning can influence emotional responses by associating certain behaviors with positive or negative outcomes.

How is operant conditioning used in education?

It is used to shape learning and behavior through rewards and consequences, enhancing student engagement and motivation.

What is the difference between operant conditioning and classical conditioning?

Operant conditioning involves voluntary behaviors influenced by consequences, while classical conditioning involves involuntary responses associated with a stimulus.

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