Operant Conditioning: Behavior Management


The learning process involves acquiring knowledge, emotional responses, attitudes, motor skills, and values. Psychologists believe that learning is a long-lasting transformation in behavior because of an experience. Scientists and psychologists throughout the years have discovered various learning theories. Some learning happens automatically without people being able to notice it while others occur by what people see, hear, or what people are exposed to in their surroundings. Latent learning, operant conditioning, classical conditioning, and observational learning are some of the most well-known learning theories. The essay examines operant conditioning as a learning theory in psychology providing its definition, examples, methods used to measure it and findings about the theory.

Detailed Definition of Operant Conditioning

Operate conditioning is an approach of learning that utilizes punishments and rewards for behavior. Through it, a relationship is established between a consequence and a behavior for that behavior. B.F. Skinner first established operant conditioning also known as operant learning in 1930 (Support, 2022). Operant conditioning refers to an approach to learning that happens through punishment and rewards for behavior. He adopted the word operant to imply any active behavior, which works upon the surroundings to generate consequences (Blokdyk, 2018). In this theory of learning, punishment and rewards are applied to change behavior. Through operant learning, behavior that is punished will seldom happen, while behavior that is rewarded will possibly be repeated. It is, therefore, a form of an associative process of learning where the strength of conduct is adjusted by punishment or reinforcement. In operant conditioning, a correlation is established between a behavior and a consequence (either positive or negative) for the behavior. Therefore, operant conditioning can be defined as a process by which animals and humans learn to act in a manner that they gain rewards and shun punishments (Blackman, 2017). In this reference, all animals’ behavior from protists to human beings is directed by their consequences.

Examples of Operant Conditioning

A good example to illustrate operant conditioning is when the laboratory rats press the lever when the green light is on; they get a food pellet serving as the reward. However, when the red light is put on, they press the lever and get a mild electric shock as a punishment. Hence, the rats learned to press the lever if the green light is on and shun pressing the lever when the red light is on to avoid electric shock. Nonetheless, operant conditioning does not only happen in an experimental environment while training laboratory animals (Blackman, 2017). The approach plays a critical role in daily learning in the natural environment where punishment and reinforcement happen often and in a more structured environment like therapy sessions and classrooms.

Another example to consider is when children are completing their homework to get a reward from a teacher or parent or workers finding projects to earn promotions or receive praise. After a person performs in a community theatre play, one receives applause from the audience. The behavior is a positive reinforcement that inspires one to try out and perform more roles. If a professor informs students that when they have perfect class attendance all the semester round, then they will not have to sit for the financial comprehensive examination. By eliminating the unpleasant stimulus, students are negatively influenced to attend classes frequently. In another example, if an employee fails to hand in the project at a predetermined time, one’s supervisor becomes angry and berates one’s performance in front of one’s co-workers (Sirois & Elsevier, 2021). It serves as a positive punisher creating it less likely for an employee to complete projects late in the future.

A teenage girl fails to clean up her room as directed; therefore, her parents are compelled to take away her smartphone for the entire day. This is an example of negative punishment where a positive stimulus is removed. In some of the examples, the promise of rewards leads to an increase in behavior. In addition, the operant conditioning may be applied to diminish the behavior through the elimination of a desirable outcome or the use of a negative response. For instance, children can be told they can lose vacation privileges when they talk out of turn in class (Akpan & Kennedy, 2020). The perspective for punishment will contribute to a decline in disruptive activities in class. Examples of operant conditioning reveal that all animals’ behaviors are directed by their consequences. The dog yearns for a meat; politicians read polls to direct their campaigns. These examples are cases of ontogenetic decision that is directed by consequences during an individual life (Blackman, 2017). Hence, the theory concerns intentional activities that influence the surrounding environment.

Methods Used to Measure Operant Conditioning

In the theory of operant conditioning, there are four methods applied to measure the concept that an antecedent contributes to a behavior, which then contributes to a consequence. These include positive reinforcement, positive punishment, negative reinforcement, and negative punishment. Positive means adding while negative means taking away or subtracting in operant conditioning theory (Blokdyk, 2018). Reinforcement implies increasing the desired behavior frequency while punishment implies the consequence that is intended at deterring the likely act from occurring in the future again. Positive reinforcement implies adding something to the equation to support the subject to repeat a desired behavior, for instance, rewarding a worker with a bonus for the work well done (Support, 2022). In addition, giving children a present for scoring an A on their report cards is a good example of positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is another approach to operant conditioning that may be misunderstood by many. It implies removing or taking away something, which does not imply that one has to correct the subject using aversive or negative stimuli. An example of this is when in a common household matters where there is a troublesome spouse. If the spouse wants something to be done in the house, the spouse keeps mentioning what needs to be done (Akpan & Kennedy, 2020). The nagging behavior of the spouse is eliminated. Positive punishment may be confused with negative reinforcement even though it entails adding a stimulus to avert unwanted conduct. Another example of this is when one tells a dog to stop when barking. This is adding verbal to end the unwanted actions (Support, 2022). The trainer adds a positive that can diminish the behavior frequency.

Negative punishment on the other hand is taking away something to end the behavior. An example is when a teenager comes late at home; hence, the parent takes away the car to avert them from arriving home late in the future (Blackman, 2017). In the case of a dog trainer, when the dog growls at the other dog over a meal or toy, one has to take that meal or toy away to have the dog stop growling.

Significant Research Findings on Operant Conditioning

Skinner trusted that operant conduct should engage a response that may be easily repeated like pecking in an illuminated disk as in the case of pigeons or pressing the lever in rats. The theory focused on approximately exclusively reversible behaviors. Behaviors in which under the steady position pattern in a specific schedule is constant as conditions are sustained for sufficient days that the behavior pattern is locally constant behavior (Akpan & Kennedy, 2020). Operant conditioning approaches have shown that behavior changes in possibility and strength if it is accompanied by biologically significant consequences like access to water, food, and escape from cold, painful stimuli, excessive heat, or sexual activity. Behaviors that appear to support reproduction and survival become more often while those that generate harm are eliminated or avoided (Blackman, 2019). Hence, operant conditioning is an essential evolutionary advance that supports organisms to adapt to the unpredictable surroundings in which comfort, nourishment, danger, and potential mates are not ubiquitous even though should be fought for, searched out, or shunned using any means available.

Moreover, it is students’ characteristics of operating conditioning to confine their test assessments to measurable and objective variables. Nonetheless, in any test, some section of the behavior of a living being is often below the observability threshold. It should be presumed that the operant conditioning principles apply to behavior that may be observed and covert behaviors. However, the understanding of psychologists of covert actions is interpretive other than experimental (Blokdyk, 2018). The reinforcement factor is of significant in covert actions interpretations because the terms of the assessment have been well-developed in specific organisms under analogous circumstances in the lab.


Skinner’s famous work with pigeons contributed to the operant conditioning discovery. Operant conditioning theory may be applied to transform a behavior. By either utilizing negative or positive reinforcement, people can discourage or support a given trait that they desire. The case of a dog trainer, when the dog growls at the other dog over a meal or toy; one has to take that meal or toy away to have the dog stop growling.


Akpan, B., & Kennedy, T. J. (2020). Science education in theory and practice: An introductory guide to learning theory. Springer Nature.

Blackman, D. (2017). Operant conditioning. Operant Conditioning, 3(1), 38-53.

Blackman, D. (2017). Operant conditioning and clinical psychology. Operant Conditioning, 198-216.

Blackman, D. E. (2019). Operant conditioning: An experimental analysis of behaviour. Psychology Revivals.

Blokdyk, G. (2018). Operant conditioning (3rd ed.). 5starcooks.

Sirois, M., & Elsevier. (2021). Elsevier’s veterinary assisting exam review. Elsevier Health Sciences.

Support, M. (2022). West suburban Humane Society. Web.