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The term operant conditioning is heard all over the psychology world. It is one of the first theories that one is introduced to during their psychology learning years. So, what exactly is this theory? While learning about operant conditioning we must pay attention to two necessities, positive and negative reinforcements. These two play a key role in operant conditioning and behaviors. But which reinforcement method works better? Positive or negative? There are a few aspects to look into when determining which method works the best.

Once operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement are learned, then it becomes easy for an individual to take the information and shape a behavior. Along with shaping behaviors, the creation of a reinforcement schedule can also be applied to the selected behavior.

The Theory of Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning was created by behaviorist BF Skinner. Operant conditioning occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviors. This creates a link between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.

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Skinner had believed that it was not really necessary to look at internal thoughts and motivation in order to explain behavior. Instead we should look only at the external observable causes of human behavior (Cherry, 2005). When we have actions that are followed by reinforcement, they will be strengthened and then more likely to occur again in the future. However, actions that result in punishments or non-desirable consequences will be the opposite. These actions will be weakened and less likely to occur again (Cherry, 2005). An example of operant conditioning would be a young child during potty training.

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The young boy would receive a cookie along with praise right after he goes potty in the toilet but receives nothing when he goes in his diaper. As a result of this, he learns to go in the toilet and avoids going in the diaper.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Let us first begin with what a reinforcement is. A reinforcement is any event that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows (Cherry, 2005). Now, there are two types of reinforcements and they are negative reinforcement and positive reinforcement. With positive reinforcement, favorable events or outcomes are presented after the behavior. This is where the behavior is strengthened (Cherry, 2005). This occurs because there is the addition of something new such as praise or an instantaneous reward. An example of this would be little Johnny receiving a dollar right after he cleans his room. On the other hand, with negative reinforcement there is removal of an unfavorable event or outcome after the display of a behavior. This in turn will strengthen the response when something that is looked at as unpleasant is removed (Cherry, 2005).

An example for this would be the professor offering to cancel the quiz for week two if everyone turns in their homework for week one. Now as one can see negative reinforcement is different from punishment because in the cases of punishment the behavior decreases. In either one of these cases the behavior of the individual increases. To look at both positive and negative reinforcement, can we decide which one is more favorable or which one will produce a better outcome? It seems as if that would depend on the individual themselves.

Not everyone responds or reacts to stimuli in the same way. In an opinion, reaction can be based on personality. For example, a young child could consistently be given the option of money after cleaning their room on their own and still not do it because it is not favorable to them. However, the same child could jump for the opportunity of not having to attend church if all their homework is turned in the week prior. On an individual level, a household can contain one child that responds to positive reinforcement while the other responds to negative reinforcement.

The Scenario and Schedule

There are two reinforcement schedules, continuous and partial. Continuous reinforcement is reinforcing the behavior every single time it occurs (Cherry, 2005). With partial reinforcement, responses are only reinforced part of the time (Cherry, 2005). There are four schedules with partial reinforcement, fixed ratio, fixed interval, variable ratio, and variable interval. Fixed ration is reinforcing a behavior after a specific number of responses have occurred. With fixed interval, a behavior is reinforced after a specific period of time has elapsed. Variable ratio involves reinforcing the behavior after an unpredictable number of responses and variable interval is reinforcing the behavior after the unpredictable period of time has elapsed. To better understand these schedules, it would be helpful to apply a selected behavior and first learn how operant conditioning can be applied.

As a single parent of two daughters, ages 14 and 11, learning how to apply operant conditioning to shape their behavior, has been very helpful. It was set up for the children to bring home weekly progress reports after a few incidents of missing assignments. If the progress reports were positive with no missing assignments the children were praised on site and each given a dollar per class. If there were any missing assignments in any of their classes, then the children would not receive any money or praise. This is a positive reinforcement choice. The completion of assignments and grades from the children in school increased in order for them to receive a reward.

Now, it is time to choose the reinforcement schedule for the scenario just talked about. It is understood that positive reinforcement was used by giving praise and a reward once the desired assignments and grades were met every week. This would be an example of a continuous reinforcement schedule. The desired behavior is reinforced every single time that it happens. With the scenario, every week that goes by with good grades and no missing assignments, the children are rewarded with praise and money. This creates a strong association between the behavior and the response (Cherry, 2005).


Operant conditioning relies on a fairly simple premise; actions that are followed by reinforcement will be strengthened and more likely to occur again in the future (Cherry, 2005). This can be good or bad behavior. Good behavior was reinforced with the above scenario. However, if you give into the child that kicks and screams every time he wants a candy bar in the store, you are strengthening that negative behavior. Learning occurs with positive and negative reinforcements being key parts to operant conditioning.

Both of these help to increase or decrease the likelihood of the desired behavior. Determining which reinforcement is better, depends on the individual at hand and what their personality will respond to better. With the above scenario the children responded better to positive reinforcement and with the reinforcement schedule, the likelihood that no missing assignments and good grades occur, increases. Operant conditioning is used every day and plays a vital role in the world. By learning about the fundamentals of operant conditioning, shaping behaviors can be easier than ever! Well, not really but hey, Rome was not built in a day.


  1. Cherry, K. A. (2005). Operant conditioning. Retrieved from
  2. Cherry, K. A. (2005). Schedules of reinforcement. Retrieved from

Cite this page

Operant Conditioning. (2016, Sep 26). Retrieved from

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