Introduction to Operant Conditioning

In the studies of behavior, conditioning, and motivation, scientists in the field of psychology focus on the basic principles of operant conditioning. The first and most important of the elements of operant conditioning is the concept of reinforcement; positive and negative, as well as primary and secondary. The second most important aspect of operant condition studied by psychologists in the concept of punishment, primary, secondary, negative and positive. These two central concepts in operant conditioning shape the motivations of animals (including human beings) in life and all the re/actions therein.

A reinforcer is in its most basic form, an event that increases the frequency and future probability of a particular action or reaction to a stimulus. Examples of reinforcement include: “a person [who] works hard at his job and is rewarded with high pay; [and when] a student studies long hours for an examination and is rewarded with a top grade”(Lefton et al, 2004). The behaviors/motivations for executing an action such as studying or working hard are conditioned from reinforcements received from past behaviors. Reinforcement isn’t as simple as cause and effect of behavior and reward; there are in fact, two main types of reinforcement.

The first type is positive reinforcement. This is the most common practice associated with reinforcement. Instances of this type are characterized by the addition of a factor to the situation in order to create a motivation for repeated behavior. In the most simple of terms, it is reward for good behavior (to increase the correct reactions occurrence rate). This could be as basic as a treat given to a child for good behavior (Reeve, 2001).

On the other hand, negative reinforcement is an instance when there is the subtraction of an element in a situation in order to create motivation for repeated behavior. The element presented is often unpleasant and aversive, therefore causing the want to reduce future instances of the reinforcer (Reeve, 2001).

Reinforcement has actually been proven to be very successful in establishing and continuing behavior in specific instances, but it doesn’t always have to be in a physical realm. Intrinsic motivation (the motivation of self, and a reward within the action itself) tends to be a reinforcement factor for many behaviors, and it is often a motivation fueled by self satisfaction and reward (Lefton et al, 2004).

On the other end of operant conditioning is the concept of punishment. Punishment is a consequence to an act that results in a stimulus that is intended to reduce the frequency and future probability of that particular re/action (Lefton et al, 2004). Examples of punishment might include a person who cares little about their job and is punished with lost wages or termination; or when a student is punished for partying the night before an examination by the receipt of low or failing grades. Like in reinforcement, punishment has positive and negative divisions. Further defining punishment, are the two forms it takes in motivating and conditioning subjects.

Punishment commonly involves either the removal of a positive or desirable stimulus, or the application of an aversive stimulus. In the instance of a removal of certain stimulus, it is one of the most common techniques for the training/conditioning of subjects in that it creates the desire or want to gain back what has been lost, therefore,creating the motivation to change behavior accordingly. In the application of a stimulus, often the subject will alter behavior in response to the desire to move to a more comfortable position, and end the presentation of unpleasant reactions (Lefton et al, 2004).

In both reinforcement and punishment, there is either a primary or secondary motivation factor for the subject experiencing the reinforcement/punishment. A primary factor is one that has “survival value for an organism (for example, food, water, or the termination of pain); its value does not have to be learned” (Lefton et al, 2004). The secondary reinforcer/punisher is one that is initially neutral to the subject, and has no real intrinsic value until it is connected with the action and instances it was in response to.

Recently a controversial article by Lerman and Vorndran has come to public light, with much debate and analysis. These two psychologists have in fact suggested and refuted the use of punishment in clinical settings to revise and alter behavior and motivation of individuals. “Results of numerous studies conducted over the past 15 years have shown that function of problem behavior often can be determined and this information can be used to develop treatments based on extinction, reinforcement, and other processes such as establishing operations” (Lerman et al, 2002). The use of punishment in more clinical settings is not as accepted as those of reinforcement, though it can have the same or stronger affects on motivation and behavior.

One of the most notable of experiments with operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner. In fact, Skinner and his colleague, E.L. Thorndike, are viewed as the pioneers in the development of this aspect in motivation and conditioning. Through their research an apparatus called the Skinner Box was developed. This device is an ideal setting for the study of both punishment and reinforcement in given situations. Often, the Skinner Box is a box, room or cage containing a “responding mechanism” (like a button, lever, or bar) that causes a set of consequences to certain re/actions of the subject in question. One instance of a Skinner Box may be an experiment where a subject must pull a certain lever (perhaps chosen from many), and when the lever is pulled, a reward is delivered, and in turn increases learning of the behavior and motivation to continue said behavior (Lefton et al, 2004).

Thorndike’s most important development was when he “observed the behavior of cats trying to escape from home-made puzzle boxes. When first constrained in the boxes, the cats took a long time to escape. With experience, ineffective responses occurred less frequently and successful responses occurred more frequently, enabling the cats to escape in less time over successive trials. In his Law of Effect, Thorndike theorized that successful responses, those producing satisfying consequences, were “stamped in” by the experience and thus occurred more frequently. Unsuccessful responses, those producing annoying consequences, were stamped out and subsequently occurred less frequently” (Operant Conditioning, 2006). In an experiment such as this

The study of behavior is one of the largest fields in the study of psychology, and the basis of behavior itself is motivation. Operant conditioning as first developed by Skinner and Thorndike, has evolved with the increasing knowledge of psychology, but the foundations will always remain the same, accrediting the motivation in every act to learned behaviors and motivation through a reinforcement and punishment system.

Lefton, L., & Brannon, L. (2004). Psychology: custom edition for washington state university. 8th Special ed. Boston: Pearson.

Lerman, D. C., & Vorndran, C. M. (2002). On the status of knowledge for using punishment: Implications for treating behavior disorders. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis.

Reeve, J. (2001). Understanding motivation and emotion. 3rd ed. Orlando, FL: Harcourt College Publishers.