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The Theory of Operant Conditioning


The study of human behavior by psychologists such as B.F. Skinner, Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, and Watson is fascinating. These five psychologists each have different theories on human behavior. There are similarities and differences in each of the theories. Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning theory, studied animals and formed the basis for behavioral psychology (Cherry, 2013). Edward Thorndike’s theory of connectionism consisted of studying the learning process of behavior in animals. His studies also included problem solving, administering and evaluating tests and law of effect, the bases for Operant Conditioning.

John B. Watsons theory of behaviorism, is based on behaviors measured and can be trained or changed (Cherry, 2013). B.F. Skinner based his theory off the studies conducted by Edward Thorndike. The most interesting theory is Burrhus Frederick Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning. B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning consists of neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers. Operant Conditioning is behavioral responses to conditions and studied by observation (Mcleod, 2007).

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Operant conditioning used today to modify behaviors in humans from childhood to adults even though the theory created by B.F. Skinner originated in the 1940’s.

The theory of operant conditioning

The theory of operant conditioning began in the 1940’s and based on neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers. B.F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning summarized behavior, is modified through reinforcement obtaining a desired result. B.F. Skinner observed three types of responses from reinforcers. Neutral operants are neutral responses, neither positive nor negative. These responses do not indicate that a repeat of a behavior will increase or decrease.

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Reinforcers, positive or negative, increase a repeat of a behavior. Punishers are used to decrease or eliminate the repeat of a behavior. Punishers also weaken behavior and can be rewarding or unpleasant (Mcleod, 2007).

Skinner’s designed a box called the Skinner box for his studies. The Skinner box is designed to observe, study, and modify the behavior of lab rats using his theory of operant conditioning. Skinner placed the rat in the box with a lever at one end. The rat was subject to electric shock and the lever in the box turned the electric current on and off. The rats discovered that by moving the switch the electric current stopped. The rats also discovered that when light was turned on the electric current would be turned on as well. The rats learned to move the switch the moment the light came on therefore eliminating shock from electrical current (Mcleod, 2007). “Operant behavior is behavior “controlled” by its consequences. In practice, operant conditioning is the study of reversible behavior maintained by reinforcement schedules” (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003, para. 1).

Positive and negative reinforcement

The theory of operant conditioning consists of negative and positive reinforcements. B.F. Skinner used these two types of reinforcements in his studies to obtain a desired result in behavior. While both types of reinforcers are designed and effective in modifying behaviors in individuals, one is considered more effective. Negative reinforcers are used to strengthen a behavior by the removal of an unpleasant or adverse stimulus. Negative reinforcers are not negative and designed to strengthen a behavior not to punish a behavior. A positive reinforcer strengthens a repeat in behavior by providing a consequence that is rewarding to increase the repeat of a behavior (Mcleod, 2007). Skinner (2011), “It has long been known that behavior is affected by its consequences. We reward and punish people, for example, so that they will behave in different ways” (para.1). Effective Reinforcement

Although operant conditioning uses positive and negative reinforcers to modify behavior, it is important to understand which of the two is most effective. Negative and positive reinforcers are applied not only in psychological studies, but in everyday life. Negative reinforcement modifies behavior by removing an unpleasant or adverse stimulus. Positive reinforcement is the least effective type of reinforcement. An example is an individual that drinks alcohol to excessive amounts, frequently, or goes to nightclubs and bars then drives while under the influence. The negative reinforcer is the consequence of getting caught driving under the influence by law enforcement or harming others. The consequence of getting caught driving under the influence is the removal of driving privileges, money, and short-terms of freedom (jail). The consequence of fines, loss of freedom, and removal of driving privileges are also considered a punishment. This is because the consequences are designed to eliminate a repeat of the behavior. A negative reinforcer is the most effective type of behavioral modification method.

A negative reinforcer removes an unpleasant or adverse stimulus strengthening behavior. An example of this would be an individual driving to from Temecula to San Diego starting at six in the morning. This is when the traffic is the congested and travel is slow. A negative reinforcer is the removal of the traffic. The next day the individual leaves Temecula to San Diego at five in morning encounters little traffic. Since the removal of the congested traffic is removed by leaving an hour earlier, the individual is more likely to repeat leaving at five in the morning. The same type of reinforcer applies to the individual if they leave from San Diego to Temecula at five in the afternoon. During this time, the traffic is the most congested going North. If the same individual leaves at 6 in the evening the traffic is less congested going towards Temecula. This individual, just by changing their daily schedule and removing the traffic is reinforcement in behavior. This is the best example of why negative reinforcement is the most effective of the two types of reinforcers.


Although psychologists Edward Thorndike, Ivan Pavlov, and Watson have theories, it is Burrhus Frederick Skinner’s theory of Operant Conditioning that is most effective. B.F. Skinner’s studies of modifying the behavior of lab rats and his use of reinforcers have shown how behavior can be changed. Skinner used positive and negative reinforcers, neutral operants, and punishers, in his studies and observations. Even though the beginnings of operant conditioning originated in the 1940s it is still used to modify behavior today. Operant conditioning can be applied to everyday life such as in the examples of the individual driving to and from work. Or the individual the habitually drives under the influence of alcohol. Skinner (2011), “Responding because behavior has had reinforcing consequences is very different from responding by taking advice, following rules, or obeying laws” (para. 9).


  1. Skinner, B.F. (2011). A Brief Survey of Operant Behavior. Retrieved from
  2. Cherry, K. (2013). What Is Behaviorism?. Retrieved from
  3. Mcleod, S. (2007). Skinner – Operant Conditioning. Retrieved from
  4. Staddon, J.E.R., & Cerutti, D.T. (2002, June). Operant Conditioning. Annual review of psychology, n.d.(), 1.Retrieved from!po=0.980392

Cite this page

The Theory of Operant Conditioning. (2016, May 07). Retrieved from

The Theory of Operant Conditioning

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