Introduction to Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is an important learning process in organisms, including humans. The fundamental intuition of operant conditioning is that the behavior of the organism is shaped mainly by the consequences of the organism’s previous actions. The organism then starts to associate certain behaviors with certain outcomes and starts to perform the behaviors that lead to desirable outcomes more often.

The American psychologist, B.F. Skinner, was one of the key figures in the development of operant conditioning, which he saw as the key process to behavior in general. He argued that we react to stimuli rather than consciously act. He used operant conditioning as the basis for his behaviorist theory which sought to banish all talk of folk psychological concepts such as thoughts, feelings, and intentions, as causal entities in their own right, in favor of scientifically testable concepts derived from observable behavior.

Skinner demonstrated his point about operant conditioning by performing many experiments on animals such as rats and pigeons. To do this he used a device with levers and rewards that became known as a Skinner Box. He showed that these animals could learn some quite complex patterns of behavior if rewards were forthcoming as a result. He even got pigeons to play ping pong.

In the present day psychologists still see operant conditioning as a very important learning process in both animals and humans but do not see it as the only thing that is going on. In particular the so-called cognitive revolution occurred which stopped theorists from treating the mind as a black box between stimulus and response. Instead cognitive scientists began to treat the mind as an information processing organ that could be described in terms of interlinked functional components such as short-term memory, long-term memory, perception, and planning modules.