What Is… Operant Conditioning

operant conditioning diagram showing reinforcement and punishment

In this series, I dig a little deeper into the meaning of psychological terms. This week’s term is operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning relates to the way actions are affected by stimuli from the environment. The concept was developed by B.F. Skinner in the 1930’s, and builds on Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiments in which dogs were observed to salivate in response to the conditioned stimulus, i.e. a bell.

Types of behavioural responses

Operant conditioning uses rewards and punishments to influence behaviour. There are 5 different types of responses to behaviours, and the terminology can be a bit counterintuitive:

  • Positive reinforcement: a reward is given, with the aim of increasing the frequency of the behaviour
  • Negative reinforcement: an unpleasant stimulus is removed, with the aim of increasing the frequency of the behaviour
  • Positive punishment: an unpleasant stimulus is applied, with the aim of decreasing the frequency of the behaviour
  • Negative punishment: something positive is withdrawn, with the aim of decreasing the frequency of the behaviour
  • Extinction: a behaviour that was previously reinforced is no longer given reinforcement, and eventually the associated behaviour no longer occurs
Curtis Neveu, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How effective is operant conditioning?

Various factors can influence how effective these conditioning strategies are, including the timing and consistency with respect to the behaviour. Operant conditioning can get quite complex, involving chains of different behaviours. Praise is very effective as a positive reinforcer.

According to Wikipedia, some research has shown that a conditioned stimulus leads to the release of the neurotransmitters acetylcholine and dopamine. Individuals with Parkinson’s disease (which affects the dopamine/acetylcholine balance) respond differently to reinforcers and aversive stimuli depending on whether or not they’re taking their medication.

How it’s applicable

Operant conditioning is the foundation of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA), which is best known for its use with children who are on the autism spectrum. This approach is controversial and many autism advocates have challenged it as a misguided attempt to “cure” autism.

There are various overtly harmful applications of operant conditioning. It can be a tool for psychological manipulation, and the intermittent use of reward and punishment can be especially damaging in this sort of abuse. This pattern can occur in trauma bonding. Partial or intermittent negative reinforcement in the workplace can contribute to a climate of fear.

Awareness of the basic principles of reinforcement and punishment can help us to understand how our responses to the behaviour of others can affect future repetition of that behaviour.

My own experience

Once while doing a night shift at the concurrent disorders program where I work, and a client was clomping up and down the hall like an elephant. &I told him that he needed to stop. He was openly defiant and kept on pacing.

The next day, a counsellor working with him told him that it’s okay, he can pace as much as he feels he needs to. The problem is, from an operant conditioning perspective, she was not only giving positive reinforcement (in the form of praise) to the pacing, she was also positively reinforcing the defiance, making it more likely that the behaviour will be to continue.

Clearly, there are ethical issues that can arise from trying to use operant conditioning to manipulate someone. However, if we’re not aware of the impact of our reactions then we’re not doing anyone any favours.

Do you have any thoughts on whether this kind of conditioning is useful or problematic?

Source: Wikipedia: Operant conditioning

The Psychology Corner: Insights into psychology and psychological tests

The Psychology Corner has an overview of terms covered in the What Is… series, along with a collection of scientifically validated psychological tests.

Ashley L. Peterson headshot

Ashley L. Peterson


Ashley is a former mental health nurse and pharmacist and the author of four books.

8 thoughts on “What Is… Operant Conditioning”

  1. I think it’s useful/ethical only when both people agree on the goal… e.g. A therapist using it when it’s helping you work toward your agreed upon treatment goals. I think this can get dicey when someone’s doing something they think is best for you but you haven’t agreed to it. Or you agree on the goal but not the path there. That’s when it feels manipulative to me. But sometimes it ends up being helpful in the end, too…

    In my DBT skills group, one of the leaders dings a bell when people use judgments (positive punishment).

    I use positive reinforcement on myself a lot to do things I’ve decided I want to get better at, like giving myself stickers for doing exposures, being vulnerable, asking for help, going to office hours, etc. This works well because I’m the only person involved. I also think positive reinforcement in general is kinder than the others. I use positive reinforcement with my parents by clapping or cheering or being excited when they say things to validate me, which is something we have been talking about and working on.

  2. Oooo this tingles my inner wannabe psychologist! It’s interesting too because so much conditioning happens subconsciously, or we can look back at times we were positively/negatively reinforced without realising. It can have beneficial potential, but it can also be quite harmful and damaging, even without realising by the person doing it (such as reinforcing your child with food at a young age, then they grow up developing an eating disorder relying on food in similar patterns). Brilliant post! xx

  3. If you want to change a behaviour this way then consistency is very important. Intermittent reinforcement is more powerful than continuous reinforcement. For example, if a kid keeps asking for a cookie before dinner and you never give in, there will be an initial flurry of asking more and protesting when they don’t get it (extinction burst) but then they’ll stop, but if you give in sometimes they’ll keep trying and trying and hoping to get lucky. If you tell them no 100 times and then give in, they’ve just learned that they have to ask 101 times to get what they want (and if they do that all at once it’s pretty bloody irritating). At least with humans and more intelligent animals they are capable of learning different rules for different people and situations otherwise co-parenting (or your situation at work of mutiple staff members) would be even more of a nightmare than it is already.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: