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What Is Operant Conditioning?

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What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of

learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning,

an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

Operant conditioning was coined by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, which is why you may occasionally

hear it referred to as Skinnerian conditioning. As a behaviorist, Skinner believed that internal

thoughts and motivations could not be used to explain behavior. Instead, he suggested, we should

look only at the external, observable causes of human behavior.

Skinner used the term operant to refer to any "active behavior that operates upon the

environment to generate consequences" (1953). In other words, Skinner's theory explained how

we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit each and every day.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

We can find examples of operant conditioning at work all around us. Consider the case of children

completing homework to earn a reward from a parent or teacher, or employees finishing projects

to receive praise or promotions.

In these examples, the promise or possibility of rewards causes an increase in behavior, but

operant conditioning can also be used to decrease a behavior. The removal of an undesirable

outcome or the use of punishment can be used to decrease or prevent undesirable behaviors. For

example, a child may be told they will lose recess privileges if they talk out of turn in class. This

potential for punishment may lead to a decrease in disruptive behaviors.

Components of Operant Conditioning

Some key concepts in operant conditioning:

* A reinforcer is any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows. There are

two kinds of reinforcers:

1. Positive reinforcers are favorable events or outcomes that are presented after

the behavior. In situations that reflect positive reinforcement, a response or



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