What is Operant Conditioning?

Published on: 16 Nov 2019
Clinically Reviewed by Ashley Ertel, LCSW, BCD
operant conditioning

If you have ever trained a pet, chances are you have used a regular schedule of rewards and punishments to help an animal learn or change behavior. Whether consciously or not, you used experienced operant conditioning in those moments. Operant conditioning is a theory of learning in behavioral psychology that emphasises the impact that rewards and punishments for certain behaviors can have on future actions.

The goal of operant conditioning is simple: Reinforce desirable behaviors through a system of rewards and eliminate undesirable behaviors through targeted punishments. While many behavioral therapies are rooted in insights and internal understanding, behavioral therapy is more action-based and focuses on using learned strategies to avoid developing unwanted behaviors. When applied in therapy, it is an effective way to treat certain types of behavioral issues.

What is Operant Conditioning?

Discovered by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, operant conditioning focuses on external, observable causes of human behavior rather than a person’s internal thoughts and motivations when explaining why people behave the way they do. It relies on a primary tenant: actions followed by pleasant consequences will be strengthened and will be more likely to happen again in the future, while behavior followed by unpleasant consequences will be less likely to be repeated. Skinner identified three primary types of responses that can follow a person’s behavior:

  • Neutral operants
    This occurs when responses from the environment do not increase or decrease the probability of a behavior being repeated.
  • Reinforcers
    Either positive or negative, this occurs when responses from the environment increase the probability of a behavior being repeated.
  • Punishers
    Weakening a behavior occurs when responses from the environment decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

With operant conditioning, the key to learning new behaviors — and modifying old ones — is through managing both timing and frequency of reinforcement. There are many different schedules of reinforcement that can impact how quickly operant conditioning takes hold, including continuous reinforcement and partial reinforcement, both with various interval schedules. When working with a therapist, they can recommend the best reinforcement schedule for a desired behavior change.

In practice, there are countless examples of how our own behavior is impacted by reinforcers and punishers each day. One example is how adults are motivated by their paycheck to go to work, and it is the exact reason why employees are praised and presented rewards for good performance. The prospect of getting a reward motivates employees to do their best. In contrast, a toxic work environment can take a toll on an employee’s performance and motivation to go to work each day.

Operant Conditioning vs Classical Conditioning

Both operant and classical conditioning represent the behaviorist point of view in psychology and represent the different ways a person develops to reflect the world around them. While these forms of conditioning offer reliable processes for behavior change, how a person gets there is a different story. Classical conditioning development stories are shaped by things happening around a person no matter what the person is doing. In contrast, operant conditioning development stories involve the consequences of a person’s actions and how they change over time as a result.

Impact on behavior

Operant conditioning also impacts certain types of behaviors more than others. There are two primary behavior types: respondent behaviors and operant behaviors. Respondent behaviors happen reflexively, such as pulling your fingers back from touching something hot. Operant behaviors, in contrast, are under our control and happen intentionally. Any consequences of operant behaviors can influence our decisions to do them again in the future, making them ideal candidates for operant conditioning. While classical conditioning could impact respondent behaviors, it does not take learning opportunities into account like operant conditioning does.

Benefits of Operant Conditioning

Therapists use operant conditioning to help clients change undesirable behaviors. One such example is applying this behaviorist concept to help a person control Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), a psychological condition that causes a person to repeat rituals, or tasks, over and over. While operant conditioning created a positive reinforcement each time an individual engaged in a compulsive behavior, a decrease in anxiety, a trained therapist can use the same behavior modification technique on a targeted schedule to transform ritualized responses into more healthy behaviors.

While behavioral therapies like operant conditioning can be an effective way to treat certain behavioral issues, such as OCD, it is not the best treatment for psychiatric disorders such as depression or schizophrenia. The key is to work with a licensed therapist to find the right mix of therapeutic and medical treatments for your mental health challenges, incorporating the right form of behavioral therapy when it makes sense. Through reinforcing desirable behaviors via a scheduled system of rewards and eliminating undesirable behaviors through targeted punishments, positive behavior changes can happen over time.

Talkspace articles are written by experienced mental health-wellness contributors; they are grounded in scientific research and evidence-based practices. Articles are extensively reviewed by our team of clinical experts (therapists and psychiatrists of various specialties) to ensure content is accurate and on par with current industry standards.

Our goal at Talkspace is to provide the most up-to-date, valuable, and objective information on mental health-related topics in order to help readers make informed decisions.

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