Operant Conditioning: The Science behind Shaping Behaviour

Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, is a type of learning process in which voluntary behaviors are strengthened or weakened by their consequences. This method of learning was first proposed and researched by behaviourist B.F. Skinner, and it has since been used in various fields, from psychology to education to animal training.

The Basics of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning involves three main components:

  1. Antecedent – this is the stimulus or cue that occurs before the behaviour.
  2. Behaviour – this is the action or response that is performed.
  3. Consequence – this is the outcome or event that follows the behaviour.

The consequence can be either reinforcement or punishment, and this determines the direction and the strength of the behavior. Reinforcement increases the probability of the behavior occurring again in the future, while punishment decreases it.

Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves providing a reward or something desirable immediately after the desired behavior is exhibited. The aim is to increase the occurrence of the behavior in the future. For example, praising a student for completing an assignment on time or giving a dog a treat for performing a trick correctly. Positive reinforcement is an effective way to encourage and maintain desirable behavior, as the individual or animal learns to associate good behavior with a positive outcome.

Negative Reinforcement

Different from punishment, negative reinforcement involves the removal of something uncomfortable or unpleasant once a desired behavior is displayed. The aim is to increase the chances of the behavior being repeated in the future. For example, a seatbelt alarm in a car stops when the seatbelt is fastened, or a student being relieved from an unwanted assignment if their behavior is good during a class. Negative reinforcement works by removing aversive stimuli, which can be a motivation to repeat the behavior in the future.

Positive Punishment

Positive punishment is sometimes called “punishment by application.” This involves the application of an aversive or undesirable consequence after an unwanted behavior is performed. The concept is based on the idea that unpleasant outcomes will decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. For example, when a child is grounded for misbehaving, or when someone is given a speeding ticket for driving too fast. Positive punishment is an effective way of decreasing bad behavior, but can sometimes lead to negative consequences such as resentment or avoidance of the person who performed the punishment.

Negative Punishment

Negative punishment is also known as “punishment by removal.” This involves taking away or removing something desirable or enjoyable after an undesirable behavior is displayed. The aim is to decrease the chances of the behavior being repeated in the future. For example, taking away a child’s privilege of watching TV if they do not finish their homework, or revoking a driver’s license due to reckless driving. Negative punishment is an effective way to curb undesirable behaviors, but it may cause undesired side effects, such as depression or anxiety.

Applications of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning has been used in various fields to modify human and animal behavior. In the field of psychology, operant conditioning has been used to treat anxiety disorders, phobias, and addiction. In education, it has been used to teach and reinforce good study habits, and in sports to enhance the performance of athletes. In the animal training, operant conditioning has been used to train animals to perform desired behaviors or tasks, such as obedience, hunting, and roaming around in specific areas.

The Critiques of Operant Conditioning

Despite the effectiveness of operant conditioning, there has been opposition to its use in social and ethical contexts. Critics argue that operant conditioning does not address the underlying causes of behaviors or values, and it can be used to reinforce negative behavior if not carefully controlled. Some have also criticized operant conditioning for being reductionist, as it fails to consider the complexities of the individual, and only focuses on observable behavior. Furthermore, opponents argue that this method emphasizes the behavior itself over the cognitive and emotional states underlying it, which can make individuals feel powerless, controlled, and unintentionally exposed to negative side effects.


Operant conditioning is an effective way of shaping or modifying human and animal behavior. It can be used to reinforce desirable behaviors and discourage undesirable ones by providing appropriate consequence based on the individual’s behavior. While operant conditioning has been used successfully in various fields, it remains a matter of debate due to the potential negative consequences that can arise from careless or excessive usage.


FAQs about Operant Conditioning

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a type of learning where behavior is modified through rewards and punishments. It involves adjusting behavior patterns based on the consequences that follow them.

How is Operant Conditioning different from Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning involves learning through association, while operant conditioning involves learning through consequences. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with a natural response until it becomes associated with the response. In operant conditioning, behavior is modified through the consequences that follow it.

What are some real-life applications of Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is used in a variety of everyday situations, including education, parenting, and animal training. In education, operant conditioning can be used to encourage students to engage in positive behaviors by offering rewards for good academic performance. In parenting, operant conditioning can be used to shape good behavior in children by offering positive consequences for appropriate behavior. Similarly, animal trainers use operant conditioning to shape desired behaviors in animals by offering rewards for performing those behaviors.


1. Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York, NY: Appleton-Century-Crofts.
2. Thorndike, E. L. (1911). Animal intelligence: Experimental studies. New York: The Macmillan Company.
3. Legerstee, M., & Haley, D. W. (2016). Operant Conditioning. In R. J. Sternberg, M. L. Rayner, & D. H. Saklofske (Eds.), Handbook of Intelligence (pp. 407-424). Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/CBO9781316274383.023