Psychology Study Material: Operant Conditioning and Burrhus Frederic Skinner

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Operant Conditioning

Type of learning in which a voluntary response becomes stronger or weaker, depending on its positive or negative consequences.

Operant Conditioning

The organism plays an active role and “Operates” on environment to produce the desired outcome.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 - 1990)

  • American Psychologist and the founder of Operant Conditioning.
  • 1931: Received his Ph. D. from Harvard.
  • During World War II, he conducted research on teaching pigeons to direct missiles to targets while flying in nose- cone. However, the idea did not materialize.
  • 1947: Went back to Harvard to deliver ‘William James’ lectures.
  • 1948: Appointed as full professor at Harvard.
  • While a graduate student at Harvard he started thinking on Operant Conditioning lines.
  • His theory is somewhat similar to Thorndike՚s, but it was actually Watson who impressed him.

The Typical Skinnerian Procedure

  • A special apparatus usually known as skinner՚s box is used.
  • Laboratory animals learn to press a lever so that food is delivered to them.
  • The environment is controlled.
  • The animal operates on the environment and as a result of its behaviour it may be rewarded or punished. Food is the reward
  • The consequence determines if the response will be repeated or not.


Successive approximations of a required/desired response are reinforced until that response is fully learnt:

  • In the beginning each and every success is reinforced with a reward, no matter how small the success.
  • Once the desired response is learnt the rein forcer immediately follows it, every time it happens.
  • Once learnt the behaviour, in many cases, the organism may not need reinforcement any more, since many behaviours are self-reinforcing e. g. learning to play a musical instrument.


Initially the response rate following reinforcement may be slow but at one stage it increases to the maximum. This is acquisition.


If reinforcement is withheld the response rate decreases and finally no response is shown. This is extinction.


  • Increasing the probability that preceding behaviour will be repeated through a stimulus.
  • Positive Reinforcer: A stimulus whose introduction brings about an increase in the preceding response.
  • Negative Reinforcer: A stimulus whose removal reinforces and leads to a higher likelihood that the response bringing about this removal will be repeated.
  • Punishment: An unpleasant or painful stimulus whose introduction following a certain behaviour decreases likelihood that the behaviour will occur again.

Applications of Operant Conditioning in Everyday Life

  • Child rearing
  • Classroom management
  • Teaching of skills
  • Animal taming
  • Advertising
  • Psychological intervention and Psycho- therapy: behaviour modification, assertiveness training, token economy.

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