The B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory of Learning

What is Operant Conditioning?

It is B.F. Skinner, who had proposed the operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning theory of learning. Here, the behavior is learned through punishment and reward. The negative behavior leads to punishment and the positive one leads to rewards. And, the punished behaviors are likely to be reduced and rewarded ones are likely to be repeated.

Skinner’s Operant Conditioning:

B.F. Skinner (1904-1990), the pioneer of operant conditioning, began his experiments in the 1930s. He has been described as the most famous psychologist who has ever lived (Fowler, 1990). Skinner was deeply influenced by John B. Watson’s behavioral view of psychology and Edward L. Thorndike’s “Law of Effect” which states that rewarded behavior is likely to happen again. Using Thorndike’s law of effect as the starting point, Skinner developed a “behavioral technology” that enabled him to teach pigeons, animals, and humans the desired behavior, mitigating maladjusted behaviors.

Operant conditioning is a term derived from the word “operate”. When our behavior operates in the outside world, it produces some kind of effect on us and these effects determine whether we continue to engage in that behavior. If the consequences are rewarding, the response will be repeated and will grow in strength. This relationship between response and reward is the essence of operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is also called instrumental conditioning because the organism is instrumental in bringing about the change in the environment that makes the action more or less likely to occur again in the future. If the behavior pays off, it is likely to be repeated.

Skinner’s Experiment

During his studies around the 1930s, Skinner developed a special testing environment called an “operant conditioning chamber” which is usually popular as the “Skinner Box”. The box was a typically soundproof chamber with a bar or keys inside, that an animal if pressed or pecked releases food or water as a reward. The chamber was large enough to allow the animal to move within the confined area and equipped with a device to reward the animal’s responses.

In his experiment, a hungry rat was placed in the Skinner box. At first, the rat moves in an exploratory manner and by chance presses the bar or lever which delivers food or drops of water. After receiving this reward, the animal continues its activity, sniffing, stretching, and dining itself, but sooner or later it presses the bar again. The rat receives the reward again, and as time passes, the bar is pressed more frequently. Eventually, a point is reached where the rat presses the bar consistently to receive the reward. When the rat learned this response and is placed in Skinner’s box, it again is pressing the bar immediately to get the reward. The rat continued the activity until satisfied.

Key Elements in Operant Conditioning

The major key elements of operant conditioning are as follows:

Behavior Shaping

At the initial stage of learning, a rat does not press the level of the bar as soon as it enters the Skinner box. The rat is helped to press the lever to receive food. This technique used in operant conditioning is called behavior shaping. Shaping is a procedure in which rewards such as food, gradually guide an animal’s behavior toward the desired behavior. For example, in SKinner’s technique, the rat receives food as a reward as it approaches the bar. Once the rat developed the behavior of approaching the bar regularly, it is required to move towards the bar closer before it receives a reward.

Operant conditioning techniques are also applied in shaping human behavior. For example, if a student answers a question and the professor says “excellent” the behavior of responding to questions tends to increase in the future. If the teacher finds the students are not providing correct answers, the teacher still partially praises the student’s answers and effort. Teachers can raise the expectations so students have to give a more complete response to earn praise.


Reinforcement in classical conditioning is the paired presentation of the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. In operant conditioning, reinforcement refers to the occurrence of an event, like the reward of food, or water following the desired response. In other words, reinforcement is known as a reward. A reinforcer is an event or stimulus that increases the frequency of the response that follows. The types of reinforcers are:

  • Positive reinforcer – Positive reinforcement is the process in which a stimulus makes a behavior more likely to occur again. A positive reinforcer is an event or object or stimulus, that when presented, increases the probability that the response will take place again.
  • Negative reinforcer – Negative reinforcer is an event or stimuli that strengthens a response by reducing or removing an aversive stimulus.
  • Primary reinforcer – A primary reinforcer is an event or stimulus that has biological properties, which are not acquired from learning. For a hungry person, food is the primary reinforcer. Water, warmth, novel stimulation, physical activity, and sexual gratification are examples of primary reinforces.
  • Secondary reinforcer – A secondary reinforcer is a stimulus that acquires reinforcing properties in the course of association with the primary reinforcers.
  • Immediate and delayed reinforcers – Immediate and delayed reinforcers are concerned with the duration or gap between the desired activity and reinforcement. The greater the short delay between the response and the reinforcer, it is called the immediate response. And, the greater the delay between the response and reinforcer known as delay in reinforcement.


Punishment is the opposite of reinforcement. A punishment has an opposite effect, decreasing the likelihood, or rate of responding to a target response. Punishment can be negative or positive.

  • Positive punishment – A positive punishment simply means something is presented, such as spanking, scolding, and exposure to an aversive event following a behavior reduces the likelihood of recurring.
  • Negative punishment – Negative punishment involves losing, or not obtaining a reinforcer as a consequence of behavior.

Schedules of Reinforcement

The plan, pattern, or strategy for delivering the reinforcement is known as a schedule of reinforcement. In other words, it is a time duration that determines when and after how much time the reward would be given after the occurrence of the event. Reinforcement schedules are of various types:

  • Continuous reinforcement schedule – Continuous reinforcement is a schedule when the participant is given reinforcement after every desired response.
  • Partial reinforcement schedule – When the behavior is reinforced occasionally the reinforcement schedule is called a partial reinforcement schedule.
  • Fixed-ratio schedule – Fixed ratio schedule is a kind of continuous reinforcement schedule, in which reinforcement is provided to the organism after a specified number of correct responses is accomplished.
  • Variable ratio schedule – In a variable ratio schedule, the exact number of responses required in order to receive the reinforcement, and is not specified.
  • Fixed interval schedule – Under a fixed interval schedule, a certain fixed lapse of time must be spent by the subject performing the positive targeted behavior before a response is rewarded to the subject.
  • Variable interval schedule – Variable interval schedule is also based on passes of time, but the animal can not predict how long the time interval is, which will bring it a reward.

The Usefulness of Operant Conditioning

Application for operant conditioning is numerous. Its principles can be applied to problems ranging from high blood pressure to social withdrawal. Reinforcement techniques also work in education, businesses, homes, and clinics.

Operant Conditioning In Education

Skinner and his colleagues advocated teaching machines and textbooks that would shape learning in small steps and provide immediate reinforcement for correct responses. These machines and texts concentrate on a students’ special needs and weaknesses. One of the most influencing operant-based teaching techniques is Computer Assisted Instruction (CAI).

In CAI students interact with sophisticated computer programs that provide immediate reinforcement for correct responses. CAI also enhances lecture-based distance education, desktop video conferencing, and web-based training in which instructors and learners of the world who are separated geographically can meet anytime, brought together through the high-speed communication system.

In Business

Many companies are using reinforcing principles to influence productivity. Reinforcement is especially effective in raising morale, motivation, etc. An effective manager can simply walk around the workplace, and praise people for good work, or write unexpected notes of appreciation for an employee’s work.

A simple pleasant gesture like a smile, a gentle pat on the back, and a nodding head can be much more effective. Operant conditioning principles have been applied in solving social issues like crime, energy conservation, recycling, health care issues, consumer affairs, and safety promotion.

At Home

Operant conditioning can be used at home and in family affairs by reinforcing the most desired behaviors and extinguishing the undesired ones. Psychologists have suggested a step by step procedure for reinforcing the positive behavior:

  • State your goal. Suppose you have a goal like writing a book, quitting smoking, losing weight, exercising more, etc. Make your intention clear, in measurable terms to all your friends and relatives.
  • Record how often you have been engaging to promote this behavior. Try to make a list recording the number of hours you spent writing the books, and wasted time doing nothing.
  • Reinforce your desired behavior. If you have really devoted to writing, reinforce yourself by visiting friends or engaging in a leisure activity at the end of the week for refreshment.
  • As the new behavior becomes a habit, try to minimize the incentive with a gentle, mental pat to oneself for accomplishing the goals.

At Clinical Situation

Operant conditioning techniques are also useful in treating behavior problems. Behavior therapists reinforced desired behavior and avoid escape, or punish undesirable behaviors. Retarded and autistic children have learned to interact with the help of the operant principle. For example, schizophrenics have been helped to behave in a moral rational manner in their hospital ward.

One of the important approaches used is the token economy. When patients display inappropriate behavior such as not getting out of bed, washing, dressing, talking coherently, and clearing their room, they receive a token or a plastic coin. Token functions as money, which can be exchanged for desirable items such as snacks, candy, the opportunity to watch television, etc. In this fashion, the patient can be systematically rewarded for producing desirable behaviors and not rewarded for producing undesirable ones.

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