Operant Conditioning Theory

Operant conditioning is the term used to denote the use of stimulus to help modify a certain behavior or response. The major theoretical concepts of operant conditioning are:

  • Positive reinforcement is a concept that is used to denote the occurrence of a behavior in response to a favorable or pleasurable stimulus (Staddon and Cerutti, 2003). For instance, a favorable response is delivered to a dog, such as giving food after the dog achieves a certain desired behavior, such as pressing a bell.
  • Negative reinforcement is a concept that is used to denote the occurrence of a behavior in response to an unfavorable stimulus such as loud noise in the cage of a rat until it achieves the target behavior of pressing the lever of the cage (Staddon and Cerutti, 2003).
  • Punishment could be positive or negative. Positive punishment is the concept that is used to denote an aversive stimulus such as loud noise or shock, which will result in the decrease in the undesirable behavior in the target (Staddon, and Cerutti, 2003). Negative punishment refers to the removal of a favorable stimulus, such as the taking away of a sweet from a child if the behavior or response in a child is undesirable, with the intention of reducing or removing that undesirable behavior from the child.
  • Extinction is a concept that refers to the absence of a consequence or response after a behavior or stimulus has been provided (Staddon and Cerutti, 2003). When a certain behavior or stimulus fails to produce any consequences, favorable or unfavorable, and leads to no reinforcement, the situation leads to extinction, indicating no outcome from the stimulus provided.

The study of operant conditioning was initiated by Edward L. Thorndike, who experimented with cats to study their ability to escape from a puzzle box following several sessions of the trial, and he formulated the famous “Law o Effect.” In this law, Thorndike states when many responses are made “to the same situation,” those responses which are “followed by satisfaction to the animal” will result in firming the connection to the given situation (Thorndike, 1911). In this way, the Law of Effect came to be realized as the principal component of operant reinforcement, which became the foundation of Behaviorism in the early part of the twentieth century.

Behaviorism was essentially founded by John Watson and forwarded by B.F. Skinner, in the year 1977 who studied reflex physiology as “behavior which is controlled by its consequences” (Staddon and Cerutti, 2003). Skinner and his students became extremely popular with the extensive experiments they conducted on animals, especially pigeons and rats, to prove their theories of positive and negative reinforcements and how the behavior of animals can be altered through reinforcement. In the year 1948, Skinner conducted a series of experiments with pigeons and, through them, affirmed the importance of practice and reinforcement in the developmental and learning processes of living organisms. In the year 1957, in association with Ferster, Skinner published the ‘Scedules of Reinforcement,’ which became a major milestone in psychology (Dews, 1970; Karen, R. 1974).

Operant conditioning theory is based on Skinner’s model according to which human beings learn certain behaviors on a trial and error basis, which enables them to remember the kinds of behaviors that elicit positive responses as opposed to those behaviors which elicit negative responses. Skinner’s experiments with rats and pigeons brought him to the conclusion that reinforcement is an important attribute in operant conditioning and has a major impact on the behavior of organisms.

In the modern world, many of Skinner’s experiments would be applicable to extensive situations beginning with parents who base the upbringing of their children on rewards and punishments. Skinner’s model is also useful in the field of psychology to understand different types of human behaviors. The operant theory of conditioning could also be beneficial to teachers in classrooms to bring about behavioral changes in students using reinforcement techniques. Teachers and parents can work together to bring about desirable changes in their children and students to change or alter those aspects of their personality which are negative or not acceptable and to create reinforcements techniques to initiate positive or acceptable behaviors. Operant conditioning theory can be used to increase productivity and attendance in classrooms as well as workplaces. Reinforcement techniques may be applied to strengthen desired behaviors or reduce the undesired aspects. Thus, operant conditioning theory can be used to mold and alter aspects of behavior and bring about the desired changes in them.


Dews P.B., 1970. ‘Festschrift for B.F. Skinner’, New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Karen R., 1974. ‘An Introduction to Behavior Theory and its Applications’, New York: Harper and Row.

Staddon, J.E.R., and D.T. Cerutti. “Operant conditioning.” Annual Review of Psychology (2003): 115(30).

Thorndike, E. L. (1911) Animal intelligence: Experimental studies. Macmillan.