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Operant Conditioning Essay

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Updated: Jan 28th, 2019


This theory is also referred to as instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning theory. This theory was coined by B.F. Skinner. Skinner was a behaviorist from Harvard. He proposed this theory in the twentieth century. This theory was however, based on the law of effect by Thorndike (Linskie 2005).

To study behavior, Skinner had to conduct scientific experiments in laboratories. Rats were used as specimens in his experiments. They would be placed in a box known as the Skinner box. Both Skinner and Thorndike used boxes in their studies. Thorndike’s box was known as the puzzle box (Leonard 2002).

In order to study behavior effectively, the behaviorist’s had to make certain assumptions. Behaviorist believed psychology is a science, and as such, to study psychology, it would involve use of experiments. Behaviorists also believed that behavior can only be observed. They also believed that learning is similar in both humans and animals.

Operant conditioning is a learning model through which people are rewarded or punished for their behavior. This means that for every behavior, there is a consequence. The theory attempts to change behavior by using either reinforcement or punishment. After conducting thorough research, Skinner came up with three types of responses that he observed from his experiments (Linskie 2005).


This can be described as responses that discourage behavior from being repeated. This will help kill behavior.


These are events that encourage behavior to be repeated. Reinforcement according to Skinner can either be positive or negative.

Neutral operant

These responses seem not to encourage or discourage behavior.

Positive and negative reinforcement

Reinforcement is that event that seeks to encourage the occurrence of a behavior. Reinforcement is said to strengthen behavior. To study reinforcement, Skinner used rats and the Skinner box. The cage had a lever. Whenever the rat touched the lever, a food pellet would drop (Linskie 2005). Within no time the rat had learnt that by touching the lever, it would be able to get food.

In another study, a rat would be placed in a Skinner box. In this case an electric current was introduced in the box. This was supposed to cause discomfort to the rat. As the rat ran in the box, it would touch a lever that would switch off the electric current. After repeating the experiment severally, Skinner noted that immediately the rat was placed in the box it would go straight to the lever and touch it (Leonard 2002).

Positive reinforcement

This seeks to encourage the occurrence of a behavior or trait. For each behavior, there is a consequence. A good example is when a parent promises his or her child money if they got good grades. The child is likely to perform better by working hard to get good grades.

Negative reinforcement

Unpleasant consequences or events can also help strengthen behavior. Unlike positive reinforcement where actions are rewarded here the vice versa happens. A good example is when a parent agrees with his or her child that if they fail to get good grades they will pay the parent a certain amount of money. The negative consequence will make the child work hard as they would not want to pay the agreed sum of money to their parents.

After carefully looking at both the positive and negative reinforcement, I would conclude that negative reinforcement is the most effective. In the case of positive reinforcement, if the child does not get good grades he or she will not lose anything. But in negative reinforcement, the child has no option but to work hard and get good grades. This makes negative reinforcement most effective compared to positive reinforcement.

Applying the operant behavior to shape behavior

Students normally tend to be notorious by not completing their assignments on time. This is because some of them are lazy or are usually doing other things instead of doing their homework. This behavior should be discouraged. This is because handing in the assignments late robs the tutor enough time to mark the assignments. The tutor is usually forced to look for alternative time or even work overtime to complete marking the assignments.

To change this behavior, I would create a reinforcement schedule. This would encourage the students to change their behavior and be submitting their assignments in time. To do this, I would employ a system whereby the students would be liable to pay 5 dollars every time they submitted their assignments late. Students would be submitting their assignments in time to avoid paying this amount.


Operant conditioning theory can be used to change behavior. By either using positive or negative reinforcement, we can be able to encourage or discourage a certain trait that we desire. By employing this theory proposed by Skinner we would be able to shape behavior. This can be done by either rewarding or punishing behavior. Studies have shown that operant conditioning is the most suitable learning model that can be used to change behavior in both humans and animals.


Leonard, D. C. (2002). Learning theories, A to Z. Westport, Conn.: Oryx Press.

Linskie, R. (2005). The learning process: theory and practice. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

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