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Last updated 22 Mar 2021
Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which a new voluntary behaviour is associated with a consequence - reinforcement makes the behaviour more likely to occur, while punishment makes it less likely to occur. Voluntary behaviours are actions that can be controlled by the organism, such as running, writing an essay or skydiving.
The term “operant conditioning” was coined by BF Skinner, but follows the “law of effect” that was first stated by Edward Thorndike:
"responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation."
To study operant conditioning in as scientific a way as possible, Skinner created an experimental tool called the Skinner box that allowed complete control of the organism’s environment, the behaviours that were available to it and the reinforcement or punishment it would receive. Skinner investigated how the type of reinforcement or punishment given and the rate of reinforcement or punishment affected the rate of learning.
In a typical experiment, a rat or pigeon would be put into the Skinner box in which temperature, light and noise could be kept constant. On one wall of the box, there would be a lever and a hopper that could deliver a food pellet to the animal when the lever was pressed. Initially, the rat is likely to wander around the box aimlessly until it accidentally presses the lever and receives a food pellet. Skinner would leave the animal in the box and measure how frequently the animal pressed the lever over time. The frequency should indicate the strength of the conditioning of the behaviour. This would then be repeated with other animals.
To explain the process of operant conditioning, you need to be aware of several terms:
A consequence that makes a behaviour more likely to occur
A consequence that makes a behaviour less likely to occur
It is also important to be aware of the difference between positive and negative consequences. Positive consequences involve giving something and negative involve taking something away.
A rat in a Skinner’s box that was given positive reinforcement might receive a food pellet every time it pressed a lever and should learn to press the lever more often. A rat in a Skinner’s box that was given negative reinforcement might have an electric shock turned off if they press a lever, and should also learn to press the lever more often. A rat in Skinner’s box that had its heat turned off when it pressed the lever would be receiving negative punishment, and should learn to avoid the lever.
Examples of Operant Conditioning
Your teachers or lectures might be using positive reinforcement if they give you stickers or rewards for work. They would be using negative reinforcement if they say, “Unless you do your homework, you are in detention.” It is also present in computer games. The positive reinforcement you get from completing a level of a game can drive you on to try the next level, and might explain some addictions.
Operant conditioning also plays a secondary role in explaining phobias. Avoidance learning occurs when moving away from the source of the phobia provides negative reinforcement for the behaviour by reducing anxiety. This can help to maintain phobias once they have been learned.