Operant Conditioning in Learning Philosophy

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning refers to a type of learning where a person’s conduct is changed through its consequences (Henry, 2010). The conduct may be altered in kind, regularity, or intensity. Operant conditioning is a phrase that was formulated by a person called Skinner. It is concerned with the adjustment of voluntary conduct or operant conduct. This conduct thrives on the environmental setting and is sustained by its results.

How do positive and negative reinforcement and positive and negative punishment apply to operant conditioning?

Reinforcement and punishment exist as the fundamental objects of operating conditioning. They are either positive or negative. It is significant to observe that it is not the actors who are reinforced or punished. It is the resultant actions which are reinforced or punished. Consequences which occur naturally are known to either reinforce or punish conduct. Reinforcement is a result which makes a behavior to happen with more speed and regularity. Punishment is a result which makes a conduct to happen with less regularity (Smith, 2006).

How do the concepts of reward versus punishment apply to society?

Positive reinforcement happens where a conduct (rejoinder) is accompanied by a motivation which is good, speeding the growth of that conduct. When I began school, I was always at the top of my class and would receive gifts. This made me continue to perform better. On the other hand negative reinforcement happens when a conduct (rejoinder) is accompanied by removing an inducement hence speeding the growth of that conduct. For example, to keep my grades high in school since I was performing well, the television would be switched off at exactly eight at night so that I could concentrate on studying.

Positive punishment happens when a conduct (rejoinder) is accompanied by an inducement such as noise leading to the reduction in such conduct. For instance, my father beat me up in high school because I stayed out late. For fear of being beaten, I always reported home early. Negative punishment on the other hand happens when conduct (rejoinder) is caused by getting rid of an inducement. For example, when I was little, my mother snatched a car toy from me since I was not concentrating on studying anymore which caused me to reduce the time I spend playing and I studied more.

What is Thorndike’s Law of Effect?

The law of effect according to Thorndike theorizes that effective rejoinders which elicit adequate consequences were “stamped in” by experience and hence happened more times. Ineffective rejoinders which bring about irritating consequences were “stamped out” and consequently happened less often (Wells, 2001). Essentially some results strengthened conduct while some weakened conduct. Thorndike later developed the first ever learning curves using this model.

How is it related to Skinner’s work?

Skinner proposed an improved and highly explanatory evaluation of operant conditioning. It was based on the premises of reinforcement and punishment. He did not support Thorndike’s model. He came up with another model of behavior that lacked such inferences (Terry, 2009).

Intrinsic versus extrinsic reinforcement and punishment

Intrinsic reinforcement is that which occurs internally. Essentially, it is the things we allow to happen to us in as much as this may occur through an external inducement such as a smile. For example, when one tells me thank you for something, I get the motivation to do more good. On the other hand intrinsic punishment occurs internally caused by an external motivation like failure.

Extrinsic reinforcement on the other hand comes from without. It does not come from our internal thoughts. For example, when I am offered money or punished physically, I get the motivation to do a task well. Extrinsic punishment occurs as a result of external factors where I am forced to do something because of expectations. For example, the society may expect me to perform well causing me to work hard in academics.


Henry, S. (2010). Operant Conditioning. London: Prentice Hall.

Smith, J. (2006). Theories in philosophy. New York: Cengage Learning.

Terry, W.S. (2009). Learning and memory: Basic principles, processes, and procedures (4th ed.). Boston: Pearson/Allyn & Bacon.

Wells, H. (2001). Learning Philosophy. New York: Sage Publications.