Operant Conditioning


Classical Conditioning
Beginning in the 1930’s, Skinner started his experimentation on the behavior of animals.  Skinner's quest was to observe the relationship between observable stimuli and response.  Essentially, he wanted to know why these animals behaved the way that they do.   Skinner controlled his experiments by using “Skinner boxes.”   The Skinner box was a contraption that would automatically dispense food pellets and electric shocks.   Skinner believed that the learning  he observed in his Skinner boxes could apply to human behavior.  He called this learning operant conditioning.  Operant conditioning can be described as behavior adjustments as a result of greater or lesser negative or positive reinforcement and punishment.   Skinner hypothesized that human behaviors were controlled by rewards and punishment and that their behaviors can be explained by principles of operant conditioning

.Skinner Box


The main principles of operant conditioning, as defined by Skinner, are reinforcement, punishment, shaping, extinction, discrimination, and generalization. 


  • Reinforcement  
    The process in which a behavior is strengthened, and thus, more likely to happen again.
    • Positive Reinforcement
      Making a behavior stronger by following the behavior with a pleasant stimulus.   For example, a rat presses a lever and receives food.
    • Negative Reinforcement
      Making a behavior stronger by taking away a negative stimulus. For example, a rat presses a lever and turns off the electric shock
  • Punishment
    The process in which a behavior is weakened, and thus, less likely to happen again.
  •   Negative Punishment
    Reducing a behavior by removing a pleasant stimulus when the behavior occurs.  If the rat was previously given food for each lever press, but now receives food consistently when not pressing the lever (and not when it presses the lever), the rat will learn to stop pressing the lever.

  •  Positive Punishment
    Reducing a behavior by presenting an unpleasant stimulus when the behavior occurs.  If the rat previously pressed the lever and received food and now receives a shock, the rat will learn not to press the lever.

  • Shaping
    Technique of reinforcement used to teach new behaviors.   At the beginning, people/animals are reinforced for easy tasks, and then increasingly need to perform more difficult tasks in order to receive reinforcement.  For example, originally the rat is given a food pellet for one lever press, but we gradually increase the number of times it needs to press to receive food, the rat will increase the number of presses.

  • Extinction
    The elimination of the behavior by stopping reinforcement of the behavior.  For example, a rat who received food when pressing a bar, receives food no longer, will gradually decrease the amount of lever presses until the rat eventually stops lever pressing.

  •   Generalization
    In generalization, a behavior may be performed in more than one situation.  For example, the rat who receives food by pressing one lever, may press a second lever in the cage in hopes that it will receive food.   

  •  Discrimination
    Learning that a behavior will be rewarded in one situation, but not another.  For example, the rat does not receive food from the second lever and realizes that by pressing the first lever only, he will receive food.

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Operant Conditioning


Ivan Pavlov
John B. Watson
B.F. Skinner