Introduction to Operant Conditioning

As a child, can you remember being told to stay away from the stove only to reach out for the stovetop moments later? I bet once you were burned, you didn’t touch that stovetop again. Have you ever studied so hard, day after day, struggling for that A? If you said yes to either of these questions, then you’ve undergone Operant Conditioning.

Operant conditioning is a type of learning. In this kind of learning, an individual’s behavior is shaped predominantly through reinforcement. Negative reinforcements, like the burns you received after you touched the hot stove, are likely to weaken behavior. In other words, once you know the negative consequences of touching a hot stove, you weaken the behavior of touching. Positive reinforcements, like scoring an A on a test after hard work, are likely to strengthen your studying behaviors.

Operant conditioning is largely attributed to the research of psychologist B.F. Skinner who argued that behaviors become more or less likely to occur based predominately on the effect they induce. He called this “operant” conditioning because the individual or organisms he studied used their behavior to operate on their immediate environments in order to achieve some goal.

Unfortunately, many critics have pointed out the flaws in Skinner’s theory. While operant conditioning is goal-directed and controlled by the consequences a behavior produces, the theory overlooks the biological predispositions that organisms might maintain in learning.

The concept of instinctive drift states that certain species will have behavioral patterns that may interfere with their ability to process cognitively and learn through operant conditioning. For example, some species of insects, when kept in a jar, might attempt time and time again to escape through the closed lid, regardless of how many times they have been exposed to the negative consequence of hurting themselves on the hard top.

On the other hand, the theory of learned helplessness indicates that other species of insects locked in a similar jar will, after hurting themselves and experiencing a negative reinforcement multiple times, resign to staying at the bottom of the jar, completely discarding their attempts to escape. When the jar is opened, these insects will not attempt to escape because they have learned that they will get hurt if they try to.

Another loophole in Skinner’s theory is the concept of latent learning, which is learning that takes place without any form of reinforcement. In other words, your reading this article might not necessarily gain you any form of positive or negative reinforcement, but you are still learning about operant conditioning.

Overall, while Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning may not be flawless, it has paved the way for other psychologists to use some elements of the theory in the treatment of their patients. Behavioral therapists, for example, will often use operant conditioning to treat individuals who want to change negative behaviors. Smokers, for instance, can use this treatment to quit succumbing to their bad habit. For every day without a cigarette, these individuals can “reward” themselves with positive reinforcement. In many institutions such as psychiatric hospitals, patients will be treated in token economies. They receive tokens for to reinforce good behavior which they can accumulate for more reinforcement; or which can be taken away for negative behaviors.