Operant conditioning is a concept in psychology that explains how people and animals develop learned responses through the repetition of positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment.
Examples of operant conditioning in the classroom include providing stickers for good behavior, loss of playtime through bad behavior, and providing positive and negative grades on tests based on test results.
Examples in animals include giving a dog a treat for sitting and giving animals a shock of they run into a barbed wire fence, teaching them to leave it alone.
While operant conditioning is one of the most longstanding methods of teaching, many critics say it is dehumanizing and relies too much on extrinsic rewards rather than intrinsic motivation.
Operant Conditioning Examples
1. Animal Training
Desired Behavior: Sit, Lay Down, Fetch
Reward or Punishment: Treats
Operant conditioning is commonly used to train animals. Whether it is your dog at home or a domesticated wild animal being used in a movie, operant conditioning is key to getting the animal to do what you want.
For example, if your goal is to train your dog to lay down and roll over, you would employ a technique called shaping. Since the dog is unlikely to lay down and roll over the first time we give that command, we reward closer and closer approximations to rolling over.
First, we reward the dog when it lays down. Then, we reward the dog when it lays down and onto one side of its body. Next, we reward the dog when it lays to one side and rolls to its back. Finally, we reward the dog when it lays down and completes a full roll.
2. Speeding Tickets
Desired Behavior: Driving Slowly
Reward or Punishment: Speeding Ticket
No one really knows if speeding tickets were invented based on operant conditioning. However, an expensive ticket for going over the speed limit certainly is a punishment.
Do speeding tickets deter speeding later? That is an interesting question, but unfortunately it is one that has not be researched fully. At least one year-long study in Maryland revealed some surprising results.
In that study, over three million licensed drivers were studied. Drivers that received a ticket in May 2002 were compared to those that did not. The big question is: were the ticketed drivers less likely to get a second ticket during the subsequent year?
The results showed that ticketed drivers were twice as likely to get a second ticket compared to non-ticketed drivers. Although the results seem clear, it is a complicated issue and we have to take these findings with a grain of salt until more research has been conducted.
3. Temper Tantrums
Desired Behavior: Sweets
Reward or Punishment: Child stops crying when they get the food
The “terrible twos” can be very challenging years for parents. If we observe a typical scenario involving dinner-time and vegetables, we can see a classic example of how a child uses operant conditioning to shape the parents’ behavior.
Let’s say that the child is a picky eater and throws a serious tantrum whenever mom puts green beans on their plate. So, in order to stop the child from crying, mom takes the beans off the plate and gives them extra pudding instead.
In terms of operant conditioning, the child is using negative reinforcement. When mom gives pudding, the child stops crying. A behavior is strengthened (giving pudding) by removing an unpleasant stimulus (stop crying). Therefore, the likelihood of mom giving pudding in the future has been increased.
Of course, it is unlikely that a two-year old has read the most recent research on negative reinforcement, but kids are a lot more intuitive than we think.
4. Gold Stars and Smiley Faces
Desired Behavior: Rote learning
Reward or Punishment: Stickers
Kindergarten and primary school teachers utilize the principles of operant conditioning on a daily basis. When a child is well-behaved, or at least not acting up, the teacher might put a gold star or smiley face sticker by their name on a poster.
A gold star is a big deal to a 5-year-old. The teacher has just used positive reinforcement to reward a behavior they want to see more of. Rewarding behavior increases the likelihood of it happening again.
Lots of things can serve as a positive reinforcer for a 5-year-old: stickers, high-fives, and even just a really nice smile.
5. Shock Collars
Desired Behavior: Stop barking
Reward or Punishment: A shock when the dog barks
A shock collar can be used to train a household pet. It is usually used with dogs to stop them from barking or leaving the yard. The collar works by automatically detecting a bark or when the dog has passed a certain boundary. When those events occur, an electrical shock is administered.
This might sound cruel, but the degree of shock can be controlled by the owner and most of the collars have various settings to choose from. Because most dogs learn quickly, they will not have to endure shocks over a long period of time.
Shock collars are a straightforward example of punishment in operant conditioning. By applying an aversive stimulus following a specific behavior, the incidence of that behavior decreases.
6. Service Upgrade Plans
Desired Behavior: Paying a fee
Reward or Punishment: Less commercials
Watching short videos, TV shows, or movies has never been easier. Unfortunately, programming that is regularly interrupted with advertising can be very annoying. Of course, just a short time ago, before streaming services, commercials were just part of the deal. There was no way to avoid them.
Now most media companies offer their customers an upgrade plan that eliminates advertising. For a small fee of course. By paying a little extra, a customer can watch programming that is commercial free. This is a very popular technique among today’s biggest media platforms.
It’s also an example of negative reinforcement. By removing an unpleasant stimulus (commercials) the media giant is increasing a desired customer behavior (paying a higher fee). This strategy works extremely well.
7. Video Game Play
Desired Behavior: Completion of In-Game Task
Reward or Punishment: In-Game Points and Rewards
One of the most intensive applications of operant conditioning can be seen in video games. The game designers make excellent use of rewards and punishment to shape a player’s behavior.
For example, accomplishing certain tasks is rewarded by giving the player something useful that will help them do well in the game. This can include special coins or more energy for the player’s character.
The rewards are strong incentives and drive the player to spend more time playing. Although this is a desirable arrangement from the player’s point of view, it is also part of the equation in game addiction.
Many people become so addicted to video games that they will play all day. Some will avoid bathroom breaks because they don’t want to pause their play for even just a few minutes. Unfortunately, this has become a serious problem for many families and society in general.
Desired Behavior: Maturity
Reward or Punishment: Time-out
Parents and teachers can use time-out when a child is misbehaving. It simply involves removing the child from the situation where they are acting up and having them sit somewhere else.
From the child’s perspective, time-out is punishment. They are being taken away from the play area and made to sit still and quietly, which is very boring to a young child.
In terms of operant conditioning, punishment is occurring after unwanted behavior. This is supposed to decrease the likelihood of that behavior happening again.
Time-out has been a bit misunderstood over the years. A lot of caregivers use it purely as a punishment. However, it is also supposed to be a time for the child to calm down and reflect on their actions. That reflection process should be guided by the caregiver so that the child can fully understand their actions and how to avoid time-out in the future.
Desired Behavior: Do a task
Reward or Punishment: Nagging until the task is complete
After dinner when the dishes need to be washed, mom and dad usually have to nag their two teenagers to help-out. They scold them and make numerous comments about being responsible, being a part of a family, growing up and not acting like a spoiled child, etc.
This nagging is quite unpleasant and the kids feel very annoyed when it happens. So, in order to avoid being nagged, they wash the dishes.
This is a classic example of a typical family household with teenagers. It is also a good example of negative reinforcement. By removing an aversive stimulus (mom and dad nagging) a specific behavior is increased (washing dishes).
10. Credit Card Rewards Programs
Desired Behavior: Use the credit card
Reward or Punishment: Cashback or rewards points
Credit cards make money in a variety of ways. One of main ways is by charging vendors a small fee for every purchase transaction. So, the credit card companies want people to use their card as much as possible.
They do this by offering a rewards program to customers. This can be in the form of getting cash back on purchases or earning points that can be used for something later. As the name of these programs suggests, they are utilizing operant conditioning.
By rewarding the customer every time they use the card, they will be more likely to use the card again.
11. Salary Bonuses
Desired Behavior: Exceed KPIs
Reward or Punishment: Extra Pay
For a lot of people, nothing is more motivating than money. That is exactly why so many companies offer end of the year bonuses. In some professions, like hedge fund managers and stock brokers, this can amount to a significant amount of money. For the CEO of a large corporation, an end of year bonus can be in the tens of millions.
It is easy to see the application of operant conditioning here. It is a straightforward case of providing positive reinforcement for wanted behavior.
From a theoretical perspective, the sooner the reward follows the behavior the better. For this reason, sales people will often work on a commission, which is a way to deliver positive reinforcement more frequently.
Desired Behavior: A good performance
Reward or Punishment: Social gratification
Many people have tried their hand at acting or music. It could be a production at school or something with the local community theatre. Either way, whether you are an amateur or a professional, it can be a nerve-racking experience.
There can be nothing more gratifying than receiving a round of applause after a performance. Or, nothing more humiliating than cold silence. It can be a very rewarding experience or a complete disaster.
Operant conditioning tells us that applause can increase the chances that we will perform again. So, if it is a person’s first time in a live production, be it a play or recital, if the audience rewards them with applause, then there will very likely be a second show.
13. Employee of the Month
Desired Behavior: Exceeding expectations at work
Reward or Punishment: Award, plaque, or gift card
Everyone likes being recognized for good work and receiving an award. Many companies offer front-line workers various kinds of honors, including Employee of the Month. This often involves a certificate and perhaps the person’s name engraved on a plaque somewhere in public view.
The basic reasoning behind these awards is fairly straightforward: rewards increase behavior. So, if you want your workers to do a good job, offer an award for the person that does the best. This will not only make that employee work harder, but it will also affect the behavior of other workers.
This is an example of operant conditioning being applied in a work setting. It is just one example of many. HR departments utilize the principles of operant conditioning frequently to motivate personnel to work harder and be more productive.
Definition of Operant Conditioning
Human beings and animals have a lot in common. Even though there are big differences in appearance and intelligence, they both learn the same way.
When an animal does something that results in finding food, they will do that action again. People are the same. If we do something and that action is rewarded, we will do it again.
Likewise, if we do something and that action is punished, we are much less likely to repeat that behavior.
This is called the Law of Effect, and it was first postulated by psychologist Edward Thorndike in the late 1800s.
Thorndike’s Law of Effect theory was later advanced by B.F. Skinner, another psychologist.
Skinner’s version is called operant conditioning and has several components:
- positive reinforcement
- negative reinforcement, and
Positive reinforcement is when something pleasant or rewarding is given after a specific behavior. The goal is to increase the frequency of that behavior, and giving an award is very effective.
Negative reinforcement is when something unpleasant is taken away. The goal is to increase a specific behavior by removing something that is negative. It is also very effective at increasing the likelihood of a specific action happening again.
Punishment is applying something aversive after a specific behavior. The goal is to decrease the frequency of that behavior. It is also considered effective, but has a range of side effects that make its use more complicated.
Operant vs Classical Conditioning
Operant and classical conditioning are the two types of behavioral conditioning in the behaviorism theory of education.
Operant conditioning refers to learning through repetition, reward, and punishment. When you learn through the operant conditioning method, you’re explicitly trying to change your conscious behavior.
By contrast, classical conditioning occurs when you subconsciously or unintentionally associate a stimulus with a response. For example, salivating when there is the smell of tasty food is an example of classical conditioning. It occurred at the subconscious level.
Related terms in classical conditioning include unconditioned response and unconditioned stimulus. We call them ‘unconditioned’ because they are not chosen or explicitly selected as teaching mechanisms. Rather, the response is a natural and subconscious reaction to something in the environment.
In operant and classical conditioning, we engage in refining behaviors called stimulus generalization and stimulus discrimination. These cause our behaviors to change in reaction to stimuli.
- Stimulus Generalization: In stimulus generalization, we tend to respond in the same way to multiple related stimuli. It often occurs to army veterans, for example, who jump at loud sounds. They have generalized the sound of explosions and other loud noises in an urban environment, leading to a strong fight or flight reaction that was necessary in war zones.
- Stimulus Discrimination: In stimulus discrimination, we develop the ability to tell the differences between multiple related stimuli and respond accordingly. For example, a seasoned guitarist starts to tell the minute differences in tones of their strings, enabling them to perfectly tune a guitar by ear.
- Conditioned Stimulus: A stimulus that would be neutral except for the fact someone has learned that the stimulus has meaning. As an example of a conditioned stimulus, a bell has no inherent meaning, but in the context of education, it might signify that it is time for recess, triggering a conditioned response.
As we have seen, operant conditioning has a wide range of applications. It is commonly used in the classroom by teachers and in the household by parents. Of course, it is not 100% effective. There are a lot of other factors at play when talking about the actions of young children and teenagers, but generally speaking, it works fairly well.
Operant conditioning is also used extensively in corporations. Sometimes it is used on customers to encourage spending more money, or with employees to increase productivity.
Animals are usually trained with operant conditioning. Most can be taught to obey certain commands and even perform tricks. Even the movie industry uses it to train animals to carry out specific actions for a film.
Applying rewards or punishments, or removing something unpleasant, can shape the behavior of lots of living creatures, including you and me.
DeJoy, D. M. (2005). Behavior change versus culture change: Divergent approaches to managing workplace safety. Safety science, 43(2), 105-129.
Jablonsky, S. F., & DeVries, D. L. (1972). Operant conditioning principles extrapolated to the theory of management. Organizational Behavior and Human Performance, 7(2), 340-358.
Lawpoolsri, S., Li, J., & Braver, E. R. (2007). Do speeding tickets reduce the likelihood of receiving subsequent speeding tickets? A longitudinal study of speeding violators in Maryland. Traffic injury prevention, 8(1), 26–34. https://doi.org/10.1080/15389580601009764
Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.
Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual review of psychology, 54(1), 115-144.
Watson, T. L., Skinner, C. H., Skinner, A. L., Cazzell, S., Aspiranti, K. B., Moore, T., & Coleman, M. (2016). Preventing disruptive behavior via classroom management: Validating the color wheel system in kindergarten classrooms. Behavior modification, 40(4), 518-540. Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.