Define B. F. Skinner's Operant Conditioning.

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M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

B.F. Skinner's operant conditioning is an intervention that is mostly used to achieve a behavior. The term "operant" indicates that the process by which we will achieve the behavior is through actions and practices in a sequence or a pattern. The "conditioning" refers to the expected changes that will take place.

The basic components of operant conditioning are:

a) Reinforcement- This is the process by which one gives feedback, or incentives after the behavior that we want to achieve occurs. An example would be giving a dog a treat after the dog responds to a command that we want it to do. What reinforcement does is that it motivates the individual (or, in this case, the dog) to continue doing what we want it to do. The reinforcement is not always given at the same rate. In Skinner's theory the reinforcement should be given at different intervals so that the behavior does not become extinct. Once the behavior remains consistent it can be considered a "habit".

b) Punishment- This is the opposite of reinforcement. As you may already assume, when you punish someone you are giving a consequence that produces discomfort to the individual in order for a certain behavior to stop. Punishment comes in many ways and it can be verbal (stern talk, scolding), physical (actual contact with the intention of causing pain), or psychological (saying something detrimental). Punishment could lead to many different outcomes depending on how it is applied.

c) Extinction- When there is no consequence, reinforcement or punishment following a behavior, Skinner argues that the behavior will slowly end. This is why it is called "extinction". The basic premise here is that behavior has to be motivated for it to occur. An example would be a student that does excellent work in the classroom yet his or her efforts are ignored by the teacher.

Skinner would argue that it is likely that the student will not feel like taking the extra effort anymore and will eventually quit working hard altogether.

When we try for someone to do certain things, or behave in a certain way, reinforcement and punishment are the likely options that may lead to achieving the behavior. Contrastingly, extinction should be used with care making sure that we do not end up extinguishing a good behavior instead of a bad behavior.

Yojana_Thapa | Student

Operant conditioning- Behavior that operates on the environment, producing consequences. (your actions are associated with consequences). Actions followed by reinforces (a stimulus that strengthens or weakens the behavior that produced it) increase; those followed by punishers decrease.


Designed Operant Chamber: (skinner box) containing a bar or key that an animal can manipulate to obtain a food or a water reinforce; records the animal’s rate of pressing or key pecking.

Used Shaping: procedure in which reforcers like food guide behavior toward closer and closer approximations of the desired behavior.The animal is rewarded for getting close to the behavior, then rewarded for going a bit further, and finally rewarded for the actual behavior.

Types of Reinforcers

Reinforcer: Any even that strengthens the behavior it follows, response; maybe be praise or attention or activity (STRENGTHENS)

Positive Reinforcement

Strengthens a response by presenting a typically pleasurable stimulus after a response

Ex. Giving a dog a treat because he sat when you told him to and that increases the likelihood he’ll seat

Negative Reinforcement

Strengthens a response by removing or reducing something undesirable or unpleasant. (Do something to make something bad go away) not a punishment; removing aversive stimulus

Primary Reinforcers

Innately reinforcing stimulus, such as one that satisfies a biological need

(Getting food when hungry) – Unlearned, innately satisfying

Conditioned Reinfiorcers

Secondary reinforces, gains its reinforcing power through its association with a primary reinforcer

For example, in a Skinner box, rats learned that pulling the lever (conditioned reinforcer) gave some food (primary reinforce).