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Operant Conditioning Concept – Psychology Essay

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Updated: Mar 30th, 2020

Operant conditioning is a psychological theory, which is often applied in examining the behavior of human beings and animals (Cohen, 2009). Various scholars gradually developed this theory; for example, Konorski carried out extensive research on the behavior of animals (Cohen, 2009). Edward Thorndike later modified Konorski’s research findings on operant conditioning by introducing the law of impact (Cohen, 2009).

According to this theory, behaviors that generate pleasing outcomes are likely to become habitual, and those that generate detestable effects are not likely to be repeated. In simple terms, some effects encourage behavior, and some do not. Based on this theory, Thorndike generated the initial set of animal learning arcs (Cooper & Heron, 2007).

In the 18th century, B.F. Skinner advanced the idea of operant conditioning, but he criticized Thorndike’s hypothesis. Skinner introduced a cage in which he examined how various organisms responded to stimuli. “Most scholarly works produced by Skinner focus on the analysis of human actions using operant conditioning” (Cohen, 2009).

Operant conditioning is different from classical habituation because it focuses on the transformation of behavior through reinforcement (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). “An operant action occurs in the surroundings and is sustained by training habitual actions, which are also prompted by antecedent circumstances, while classical habituation is upheld by its precursors and effects” (Reynolds, 2005).

It is worth noting that an outcome does not sustain a behavior conditioned by classical habituation. Moreover, “classical habituation entails creating a link between unintentional reaction and motivation, while operant training involves connecting a voluntary action with a consequence” (Davey & Cullen, 1988).

When operant conditioning is used to transform the behavior of an organism, inducements are used to encourage repetition of the desired behavior (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Conversely, inducements are not applied in classical conditioning. Nonetheless, these two approaches can be used in examining the behavior of students and training animals.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement refers to the application of an incentive after an action to encourage its reoccurrence. When a positive result, activity or incentive follows an action, it reinforces it (Cooper & Heron, 2007). Therefore, a positive reinforcement refers to rewarding an organism after it has performed the desired action.

For example, a student who answers an oral question in class can be motivated in various ways. In the workplace, employees with outstanding performance can be given salary bonuses to motivate them for their hard work (Cooper & Heron, 2007).

Although positive reinforcement can facilitate the conditioning of action, it should not be encouraged because it might encourage naughtiness (Cooper & Heron, 2007). For example, some parents erroneously guide errant children by giving them positive rewards after misbehaving.

A child who is rewarded after misbehaving is likely to associate misconduct with inducement; hence, naughtiness is strengthened instead of being corrected. Consequently, the best option is to reward good behavior with an incentive. “Negative reinforcement should be used to deter misconduct” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Negative reinforcement refers to a situation in which an action is negatively reinforced by discouraging or ending it. In negative reinforcement, an individual or an animal performs an action to avoid negative outcomes. In other words, “actions are negatively strengthened when they let an organism to avoid aversive incentives, which are already there or let an organism to stay away from the aversive motivations before they occur totally” (Davey & Cullen, 1988).

Thus, negative reinforcement simply refers to the discouragement of an action. For example, a student may carry out intensive academic research to avoid failing in an examination. “It is important to note that negative intensification of actions is not tantamount to punishment” (Reynolds, 2005).

Negative reinforcement is concerned with the elimination of a negative condition to reinforce the behavior. Conversely, punishment entails either using or withdrawing a stimulus to discourage action. Negative reinforcement is an ideal technique for encouraging good behavior. Nonetheless, it works efficiently if reinforcement is introduced right away after an action. “A response can become weak if it is not reinforced immediately” (Cohen, 2009).

Effective Reinforcement

There is consensus among psychologists and scholars that both negative and positive methods of reinforcing behavior are important (Cooper & Heron, 2007). However, it is not easy to determine the most effective type of reinforcement since both of them have shortcomings.

Moreover, the effectiveness of each approach is determined by the context in which it is applied. “Some scholars assert that negative strengthening of behavior should be applied carefully in learning activities, while positive strengthening of actions should be accentuated” (Davey & Cullen, 1988). Negative reinforcement has the capacity to generate quick outcomes and is good for temporary reinforcement of behavior.

Transformation of Behavior Using Operant Conditioning

In the history of human beings, modification of behavior has been given much focus by specialists such as doctors, psychiatrists, teachers, and leaders. Olson and Hergenhahn both contend that for an individual to transform an action, he or she must identify something that will reinforce it (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Therefore, a close link between an action and stimulus increases the ability of an organism to execute the desired action (Cooper & Heron, 2007).

In a classroom environment, the behavior of learners can be transformed using the two approaches of behavior conditioning. For instance, positive reinforcement is ideal during learning activities because it can encourage students to take a keen interest in classwork (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). For example, a teacher can reward students who participate actively in classroom discussions.

Participation of pupils in classroom activities can be reinforced with various incentives. When a student is able to link an incentive with the desired action, he or she will be motivated to perform it. Thus, “positive and negative reinforcements can be used effectively to modify the behavior of any organism” (Cohen, 2009).

Reinforcement schedule

Reinforcement of behavior is often done systematically and is guided by specific principles (Cooper & Heron, 2007). A reinforcement schedule can be defined as the process of conditioning an action (Cohen, 2009). “Reinforcement schedule also facilitates the strengthening of a response” (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

A reinforcement schedule is significant when operant conditioning is applied in the transformation of behavior because the frequency and strategy used to affect the response rate of an organism (Cooper & Heron, 2007). Behavior can be reinforced consistently or partially (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

Therefore, in teaching young pupils new grammatical skills, I would continuously reinforce their learning activities to motivate them to grasp new concepts. Later, I would partially reinforce the reaction of pupils once they acquire basic skills because it is difficult to reinforce behavior consistently. The gradual withdrawal of reinforcement would make learners remain focused on learning; hence, it would facilitate the effective acquisition of new skills (Cooper & Heron, 2007).


Cohen, J. (2009). Operant Behavior and Operant Conditioning. Pennsylvania: Rand McNally.

Cooper, J., & Heron, T. (2007). Applied Behavior Analysis. New York: Pearson.

Davey, G., & Cullen, C. (1988). Human Operant Conditioning and Behavior Modification. London: Wiley.

Olson, M., & Hergenhahn, B. (2009). An Introduction to Theories of Learning. New York: Sage.

Reynolds, G. (2005). A Primer of Operant Conditioning. New York: Sage.

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