What is operant conditioning and how does it work?

Operant conditioning is a learning theory from which several techniques are derived to modify people’s behavior. It is often useful in the treatment of phobias and addictions.

Last update: 11 March, 2022

Operant conditioning is a theory of learning and, at the same time, a technique for behavior modification. It has multiple applications ranging from advertising persuasion to the treatment of phobias and addictions.

Operant conditioning is also known as instrumental conditioning or skinnerian conditioning. In general terms, it serves to increase or decrease certain behaviors by introducing positive or negative consequences.

He was born in the framework of the behavioral school. It is called this way to differentiate it from classical conditioning, which was prior.

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a learning method. It is based on the association between a certain behavior and the introduction of positive or negative consequences against it. If the consequence is positive, the behavior is reinforced; if it is negative, it is reduced or eliminated.

The objective of this approach is to increase or decrease the probability that a behavior will be repeated. If there is a reward for that behavior, it will tend to be performed again. If there is a punishment, it will stop being practiced.

From this point of view, in operant conditioning there are several types of response, depending on the objective sought. It not only includes reward and punishment, but also the elimination of punishments or rewards.

How does it work?

Operant conditioning seeks to modify behavior. If someone exhibits a behavior that wants to be maintained or promoted, something is introduced to reinforce it, such as a reward.

If the behavior wants to be eliminated a punishment is introduced or a reward is removed. In this way, behaviors followed by a reward are strengthened and those followed by a punishment are not stimulated.

This methodology can be used in some psychological therapies, especially for dealing with addictions.

The elements of operant conditioning

In operant conditioning there are positive and negative factors or elements that come into play against a behavior. They are the following:

  • Positive reinforcer: when after a behavior a reward is added. Increase the frequency of that behavior. For example, congratulate, give an award, give commissions.
  • Negative reinforcer: It occurs when an aversive stimulus is removed after the behavior. It also promotes that behavior. For example, stop scolding the other or allowing him to leave before the usual time.
  • Positive Punishment: when a behavior occurs and a punishment occurs. This discourages such behavior. For example, scolding or giving extra work.
  • Negative Punishment: if after the behavior a reward is removed. For example, do not speak, do not answer or do not interact.


conditioning programs

Conditioning schedules have to do with the frequency or intensity with which rewards and punishments are introduced. This depends on the effect you want to achieve.

Thus, there are 5 possible programs:

  1. Continuous. Every time the behavior occurs, the consequence occurs.
  2. fixed ratio. When reinforcement is only introduced after a certain number of times the behavior has occurred.
  3. fixed intervals. Reinforcement is introduced if the behavior takes place over a certain period of time.
  4. variable ratio. The reinforcer is introduced randomly, after an indeterminate number of repeated behaviors.
  5. variable interval. The booster is introduced randomly after an indeterminate amount of time.

operant conditioning techniques

In operant conditioning there are multiple techniques to modify behavior in various ways. The most important are the following.

to promote behavior

The most used techniques to promote behaviors, through the use of positive reinforcers, are the following:

  • Instigation: It includes the instructions, the physical guide and the modeling. Provides the parameters for someone to learn how an action is performed. For example, reward the best student in the class for others to imitate.
  • Molding: a behavior is gradually changed until the expected behavior is achieved. Only progress is rewarded.
  • Fading: aids or instigators are gradually withdrawn. The goal is to learn the behavior on its own. Progress in autonomy is rewarded.
  • Chaining: behavior is separated into different parts. The person must learn these parts one by one until he achieves the complete behavior. Each link must reinforce the previous one.
  • reinforcement schedules: can be continuous, ratio or interval.


To remove or eliminate behaviors

The most used techniques to reduce or eliminate behaviors usually introduce unpleasant elements. What is indicated is that, whenever possible, less aversive procedures are used.

The main techniques are the following:

  • Extinction: behavior that had previously been reinforced is no longer rewarded. For example, a child throwing a tantrum is ignored.
  • Skip Training: It consists of depriving something that pleases in response to inappropriate behavior. For example, the child is prevented from watching television if she has misbehaved.
  • Differential reinforcement schedules: some behaviors are reduced, increasing the reward in others. For example, a child is rewarded for eating healthy food.
  • Response cost: it is to deprive of a reward. For example, a toy that she had given him is taken away from the child.
  • Time out: it is to isolate someone in an environment that does not offer stimulation.
  • Satiety: the behavior is repeated many times or the stimulus is provided many times until it is no longer desirable.
  • Overcorrection: It is positive punishment. For example, make the child pick up the toys that she has thrown and also clean the room.
The punishment of children oscillates between different theories. On the same operant conditioning there are dissimilar views that discuss its application in childhood.

What is it used for?

Operant conditioning is used in many fields. In the examples we have used, it is clear that applies to raising children.

But there is also utility in the world of education and work. In advertising, offers and discounts are an example of this.

Within the therapeutic plane, operant conditioning used to overcome phobias and addictions. Different strategies seek to eliminate irrational fear or compulsive behavior.

Anyway, the approach also has its critics. Some think that shaping the behavior of the human being from external interventions is a way of restricting freedom. Likewise, it can induce behaviors that only benefit a few.

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