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Operant Conditioning Theory by Burrhus Frederic Skinner Essay


Skinner noted that people have minds. However, he believed that it was necessary to understand observable behaviors other than mental processes. In other words, one could not use internal thoughts and motivations to explain behaviors. Hence, Skinner stressed the importance of understanding the cause of a behavior and its impacts. Skinner referred to this as operant conditioning. Skinner used the Law of Effect that Edward Thorndike proposed after studying animals through a puzzle box.

In this context, operant reflected an active behavior in animals, which relied on a given environment for responses. Skinner’s approach aimed at explaining how people acquire various forms of learned behaviors from the environment.

The theory of operant conditioning

Skinner is the main proponent of operant conditioning. However, the concept of operant conditioning emanated from the work of Thorndike referred to as the law of effect. Skinner added the concept of reinforcement in his theory. Animals tend to repeat reinforced behaviors (strengthened). On the other hand, behaviors that they fail to reinforce normally weaken and eventually disappear.

Skinner used his Skinner box in order to study behaviors of animals and understand the concept of operant conditioning. He used the term operant conditioning to reflect changes in behaviors because of reinforcement applied or given after preferred responses (Staddon and Cerutti, 2003). Skinner noted that there were three concepts associated with the certain behaviors.

First, neutral operants were responses that emanated from the environment. They did not have any effects on a behavior in terms of either increasing or decreasing the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

Second, reinforcers were the responses from the environment that enhanced chances of an animal repeating a behavior. Reinforcers could be either positive or negative.

Finally, punishers were responses that emanated from the environment, but they discouraged the probability of an animal repeating a given behavior. In this case, punishment was responsible for weaknesses in behaviors.

Skinner’s concept is evident in daily activities of life. For instance, one can reflect on how reinforcers and punishers have affected his or her behaviors. In fact, most people learn from consequences of their behaviors.

Positive and negative reinforcement

In his experiment, Skinner demonstrated the concept of positive reinforcement through a rat in the box. The starving rat would tap a knob in the box by chance as it roamed. This action resulted in a food pellet dropping for the rat (Timberlake, 1983). After few movements in the box, the rat started going to the lever directly. The rat noted that whenever it knocked the lever, it would receive the food pellet. It repeated this activity over and over again (Baum, 2012).

In this case, positive reinforcement was responsible for strengthening the behavior of the rat because of the consequence of getting the food pellet after knocking the lever. Food was the reward for a positive behavior. Thus, the reward strengthened the behavior, and it was also responsible for subsequent repetitions.

On the other hand, there are also unpleasant reinforcers, which can reinforce a behavior. Skinner referred to this as negative reinforcement. Negative reinforcement worked through elimination of unpleasant stimulus from the environment. The animal was able to get the reward through this behavior. The experience from negative reinforcement was responsible for eliminating undesirable behaviors.

Skinner demonstrated the concept of negative reinforcement by subjecting the rat to electric current in the Skinner box. The current created discomfort for the rat. The rat noted that knocking the lever would switch off the electric current. It soon learned to knock the lever once inside the box and switch off the electric current. The need to avoid the discomfort ensured that the rat would repeat the behavior again.

Which form of reinforcement is the most effective?

Positive reinforcement has been effective method of training animals. In this case, an animal may strengthen a desired behavior after receiving pleasant and rewarding rewards. Positive reinforcement strengthens and improves behaviors of animals. Effective application of positive reinforcement ensures that animals develop desired behaviors over time. Animal trainers have noted the use of positive reinforcement often leads to avoidance of behaviors related to aggression. Positive reinforcement does not negatively affect relationships between subjects. The approach ensures that animals repeat actions, which are enjoyable to them.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement is not as effective as positive reinforcement. In most cases, people would think of applying any form of negative reinforcement in order to achieve a desired behavior. Undesirable behaviors lead to punishment. Negative reinforcement could only be effective when applied immediately during training. Moreover, harsh use of negative reinforcement can lead to poor relationships between the subjects. Constant use of negative reinforcement could cause irreversible disorders in behaviors. In most cases, negative reinforcement leads to fear, and fear can be detrimental for effective relationships.

It is also not simple for animals to relate negative reinforcement with undesirable behaviors. Conversely, they will easily associate positive reinforcement with positive rewards.

Skinner noted that positive reinforcement was effective when administered intermittently. In other words, routine rewards became normal while intermittent rewards presented opportunities for receiving constant rewards.

Application of operant conditioning to shape behavior

Most dog trainers apply operant conditioning to shape behaviors of their dogs. Although there are a number of approaches applied in training dogs, many dog trainers have preferred operant conditioning, specifically, positive reinforcement.

It is imperative to have knowledge on how dog training functions. This is the best approach for determining an effective application of operant conditioning. In addition, it would help a dog trainer to choose between positive and negative reinforcement. The major approach in dog training is association. The ultimate aim is to ensure that the dog show desired behaviors during training. Dogs can display desired behaviors when commanded or involuntarily by relating the behaviors to preferred outcomes. This explains why dog trainers have favored operant conditioning (positive reinforcement) to achieve desired results.

Dog trainers have learned to use both treats and praise for performed desired behaviors. These approaches make the dog to repeat a behavior that makes him to receive the praise or a reward. Operant conditioning has been effective in shaping behaviors of dogs to allow them to respond to different commands. Dogs enjoy positive rewards and would repeat a behavior again when they are sure of such rewarding treatments.

Other trainers have avoided negative reinforcement in training dogs because it leads to undesirable behaviors. For instance, the dog may become aggressive when the negative reinforcement becomes too much.

A reinforcement schedule for training dogs

Training dogs involve delivering rewards for both desired and undesirable behaviors (Poling & Normand, 1999). In most cases, dog trainers reward their dogs for desired behaviors. The fixed schedule (ratio or interval) has been effective for training dogs. This implies that dogs receive rewards consistently, but intermittently. Ratio denotes the number of responses, whereas interval shows elapsed time between rewards.

For instance, on a fixed ratio, the dog will bark three times at the gate in order to receive a reward. On interval ratio, the dog must maintain a given behavior for at least 30 seconds in order to get a reward. This is the best way of training dogs because they learn fast. It facilitates maintenance of behaviors in dogs. The intermittent nature of the treat ensures that the dog will not always expect a reward. On the other hand, some dogs may master the ratios and intervals. In this case, they will abruptly stop the behavior after receiving the treat.

However, this schedule may create a routine, which the dog may reject when there is no reward. Usually, this happens when the ratios and intervals are longer than the normal schedules. Moreover, it could be difficult to implement ratios in a real life situation because of redundancy in frequencies and counts.


Skinner major aim was observable behaviors rather than complex internal processes of the brain. Thus, acquisition of behaviors from the environment was the critical concept of operant conditioning.

People learn from their environments. Therefore, animals will repeat behaviors that led to positive rewards, but avoid actions that had negative consequences.

Learning in animals and humans has minimal differences. Hence, Skinner concluded that rats and humans had almost similar methods of learning from the environment. Behaviorists have focused on human behaviors in different situations. Moreover, learning is a continuous process that takes place because of influences from the environment.


Baum, W. (2012). Rethinking reinforcement: Allocation, induction and contingency. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of Behavior, 97, 101-124.

Poling, A., & Normand, M. (1999). Noncontingent reinforcement: an inappropriate description of time-based schedules that reduce behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 32, 237–238.

Staddon, J., and Cerutti, D. (2003). Operant Conditioning. Annual Review of Psychology 54(1), 115.

Timberlake, W. (1983). Rats’ responses to a moving object related to food or water: A behavior-systems analysis. Animal Learning & Behavior, 11(3), 309–320.

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