Operant Conditioning: What It Is and How It Works

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on December 27, 2023
10 min read

Operant conditioning, sometimes called instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning, is a method of learning that uses rewards and punishment to modify behavior. Through operant conditioning, behavior that is rewarded is likely to be repeated, while behavior that is punished is prone to happen less.

For example, when you are rewarded at work with a performance bonus for exceptional work, you will want to continue performing at a higher level in hopes of receiving another bonus in the future. Because this behavior was followed by a positive outcome, the behavior will likely be repeated.

Operant conditioning was first described by psychologist B.F. Skinner. His theory was based on two assumptions. First, the cause of human behavior is something in a person’s environment. Second, the consequences of a behavior determine the possibility of it being repeated. Behaviors followed by a pleasant consequence are likely to be repeated and those followed by an unpleasant consequence are less likely to be repeated.

Through his experiments, Skinner identified three types of responses that followed behavior:

  • Neutral responses. They are responses from the environment that produce no stimulus other than focusing attention. They neither increase nor decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
  • Reinforcers. They are responses from the environment that increase the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. They can either be positive or negative.
  • Punishers. These are negative operants that decrease the likelihood of a behavior. Punishment weakens behavior.

History of the theory

Though Skinner introduced the theory of operant conditioning, he was influenced by the work of another psychologist, Edward Lee Thorndike.

In 1905, Thorndike proposed a theory of behavior called the “law of effect.” It stated that if you behave in a certain way and you like the result of your behavior, you’re likely to behave that way again. If you don’t like the result of your behavior, you’re less likely to repeat it.

Thorndike put cats in a box to test his theory. If the cat found and pushed a lever, the box would open, and the cat would be rewarded with a piece of fish. The more they repeated this behavior, the more they were rewarded. So, the cats quickly learned to go right to the lever and push it.

The idea: positive results reinforce behaviors, making you more likely to repeat the same behaviors later on.

John B. Watson was another psychologist who influenced Skinner and his theory of operant conditioning. He studied behavior that could be observed and how that behavior could be controlled, as well as the ways that behaviors are learned. In fact, he coined the term “behaviorism,” a field of psychology focused on how things are learned.

When Skinner came along to advance this theory, he created his own box. In went pigeons and rats -- though not at the same time -- who quickly learned that certain behaviors brought them rewards of food.

He described his pigeons and rats as “free operants.” That meant they were free to behave how they wanted in their environment (the box). However, their behaviors were shaped or conditioned by what happened after their previous displays of those behaviors.

These two are very different. In operant conditioning, the results of your past behaviors have conditioned you to either repeat or avoid those behaviors. For example, your parents reward you for getting an ‘A’ on a test that requires you to study hard. As a result, you become more likely to study hard in the future in anticipation of more rewards.

Classical conditioning is used to train people or animals to respond automatically to certain triggers. The most famous example -- Pavlov’s dogs.

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian psychologist. He observed that dogs salivated when food was put in front of them. That’s natural, or what’s called an unconditioned response.

But then Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate shortly before their food arrived, possibly because the sound of the food cart triggered their anticipation of mealtime. In his experiment, at mealtimes, he sounded a bell shortly before the food arrived. Eventually, the dogs began to salivate when they heard the bell. That was a trained, or conditioned, response to the sound of the bell.

You likely experience classical conditioning every day. How? Advertising. Companies use advertisements in hopes that you will associate something positive with their product, leading you to spend money on it.

In operant behavior, the way you choose to behave today is influenced by the consequences of that behavior in the past. Those consequences will either encourage and reinforce that behavior, or they will discourage and punish that behavior.

An example: When you were a kid, did you get sent to your room when you hit your sibling? That consequence, your parents hoped, would discourage you from doing that again.

Reinforcement and punishment in operant conditioning

Reinforcement and punishment are two ways to encourage or discourage behaviors. In the example above, the punishment of being sent to your room ideally will discourage you from behaving in the same way in the future.

But what if you behave in a way that your parents want to encourage, such as sharing toys with a younger sibling? Your parents can reinforce that behavior by rewarding you, perhaps with praise.

Reinforcement and punishment both can be positive or negative. Let’s take a quick look at each.

  • Positive reinforcement. To encourage a behavior, something is added. For example, you earn money for going to work.
  • Negative reinforcement. To encourage a behavior, something is taken away. For example, you can turn off your alarm if you get out of bed.
  • Positive punishment. To discourage a behavior, something is added. For example, you get extra chores when you come home late for dinner.
  • Negative punishment. To discourage a behavior, something is taken away. For example, your parents confiscate your favorite toy when you tell a lie.

Types of operant behaviors

B.F. Skinner divided behavior into two different types: respondent and operant.

Respondent behavior. This is the type of behavior that you can’t control. It’s Skinner’s term for what happened with Pavlov’s dogs -- when they heard a bell, they responded by salivating. It was a reflex, not a choice. People have respondent behaviors, too. If someone puts your favorite food in front of you, you likely will start salivating, just like Pavlov’s dogs.

Operant behavior. These are voluntary behaviors that you choose to do based on previous consequences. You choose to behave in a certain way to get an expected result. For example, you study hard in anticipation of a reward from your parents. Or if you get punished for talking back to your parents, you are more likely to choose not to do that in the future.

Positive reinforcement involves providing a pleasant stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior happening in the future. For example, if your child does chores without being asked, you can reward them by taking them to a park or giving them a treat.

Skinner used a hungry rat in a Skinner box to show how positive reinforcement works. The box contained a lever on the side, and as the rat moved about the box, it would accidentally knock the lever. Immediately after it did so, a food pellet would drop into a container next to the lever. The consequence of receiving food every time the rat hit the lever ensured that the animal repeated the action again and again.

Positive reinforcement doesn't have to involve tangible items. Instead, you can positively reinforce your child through:

  • Clapping
  • Cheering
  • Giving a hug or pat on the back
  • Give a thumbs-up
  • Offering a special activity, such as playing a game or reading a book together
  • Telling another adult how proud you are of your child’s behavior while your child is listening
  • Praising them
  • Giving a high five

In negative reinforcement, something unpleasant happens in response to a stimulus. Over time, the behavior increases with the expectation that the aversive stimulant will be taken away. If, for example, a child refuses to eat vegetables at dinner time and a parent responds by taking the vegetables away, the removal of the vegetables is negative reinforcement.

A reinforcement schedule is a component of operant conditioning that states which behaviors will be reinforced. It involves a set of rules determined by the time and number of responses required to present or remove a reinforcer.

Different patterns of reinforcement have specific effects on the speed of learning. Schedules of reinforcement include:

  • Fixed ratio reinforcement. Rewards depend on the specific number of times a behavior occurs. For instance, a child is applauded after spelling 10 words correctly.
  • Fixed interval reinforcement. Rewards are provided at consistent times. An example is a weekly paycheck. Another example is a child being rewarded once a week if the dishes are done.
  • Variable ratio reinforcement. This reinforcement is unpredictable and yields a high number of responses. For example, gambling may offer wins after several unpredictable attempts.
  • Variable interval reinforcement. Responses are rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time has passed. An example is unpredictable check-ins by a health inspector.
  • Continuous reinforcement. This is the reinforcement of a behavior every time it happens. An example is rewarding a toddler each time they use the potty.

In operant conditioning, punishment is defined as any change to the surrounding environment that reduces the probability of responses or behavior happening again. Punishment can work either by directly applying an unpleasant stimulus such as scolding or by removing a potentially rewarding stimulus, such as deducting someone’s daily allowance to punish undesirable behavior.

While punishment is efficient in decreasing undesirable behavior, it is associated with many problems such as:

  • Increased aggression
  • Punished behavior is suppressed rather than forgotten
  • Fear
  • Punishment doesn't necessarily guide toward good behavior
  • Punishment can easily become abuse

How does operant conditioning work in real life? Let’s look at a few examples in different scenarios.

Operant condition in parenting

If you have children, you know they don’t always behave as you want them to. To change that behavior, you’ve probably tried operant conditioning even if you didn't know the name for it. For example, you have a child who doesn’t clean his room, so you offer an extra 15 minutes of screen time or another reward for time spent cleaning. Your child begins to associate keeping a clean room with getting something they want. That’s positive reinforcement operant conditioning, in which something is given in order to encourage a behavior.

Operant conditioning at school

The above was an example of positive reinforcement operant conditioning. Here’s an example of negative punishment operant conditioning, in which something gets taken away in order to discourage a behavior. This one’s set in the classroom. You’ve been acting up, talking nonstop during class. Your teacher tells you to stop or you won’t be allowed to go outside with your classmates during recess. That’s not something you want, so you change your behavior.

Operant conditioning at work

Here’s an example of negative reinforcement operant conditioning in the workplace. Remember that negative reinforcement means removing an unpleasant stimulus to encourage a behavior. You’re past your deadline for a big project, but you’ve been procrastinating. Your boss keeps emailing you to ask when you’ll be done. The only way to stop those emails is to get to work and finish the assignment.

Operant conditioning in relationships

Now let’s turn to positive punishment, in which something is added in order to discourage a behavior. Let’s say it’s your turn to take out the trash, which has really begun to smell, but you are glued to your phone. Eventually, your partner snaps at you and demands you get the trash out of the house now. Next time, to avoid getting scolded, you will be more likely to take the trash out earlier.

Operant conditioning in therapy

Some types of behavior therapy will use operant conditioning to help patients change their behaviors. For example, operant conditioning has been an effective method to help children with autism. The rewards they receive for behaving in a specific way will encourage them to continue that behavior.

The token economy is a system used in behavioral modification programs where desirable behaviors are reinforced using tangible rewards such as tokens, fake money, food, stickers, poker chips, or buttons that are later exchanged for rewards. In a hospital setting, for example, rewards of token money may be offered in exchange for food, access to television, and other bonuses.

A token economy has not only proven effective in managing psychiatric patients but also in school. This system can be used in classrooms to reduce disruptive behavior and increase academic engagement.

Behaviors can be complex, and teaching them requires what Skinner called shaping. In shaping, complex behaviors get broken down into several simpler behaviors that make up the complex behavior. These are then taught in succession, with reinforcement along the way, until the complex behavior is learned. An example will demonstrate how this works.

You want your child to learn to use the toilet independently, but that’s not a simple behavior. You take them through the individual behaviors, or steps, such as sitting on the potty with their clothes on. When they do this, they get a reward. Next, you want them to sit on the toilet without a diaper. That behavior again earns them a reward. With rewards at each successive step to shape their behavior, they will eventually reach the goal behavior of using the toilet by themselves.

Operant conditioning is a powerful tool for changing behaviors. It’s based on a psychological theory that states that the consequences of our behavior will either encourage or discourage us from continuing that behavior. Parents and teachers, for example, use operant conditioning to help kids learn how to behave appropriately.

What are the four types of operant conditioning?

  • Positive reinforcement: You are rewarded for performing a desired behavior. That encourages that behavior.
  • Negative reinforcement: Something you don’t like goes away when you perform a desired behavior. That encourages that behavior.
  • Positive punishment: You get something unpleasant when you perform an undesired behavior. This discourages that behavior.
  • Negative punishment: Something you like gets taken away when you perform an undesired behavior. This discourages that behavior.