What Is Operant Conditioning?

By Antonia Čirjak on March 8 2020 in Answer

Operant conditioning, known otherwise as instrumental conditioning, is defined as a learning process where a reward or a punishment determines behavior.
Operant conditioning, known otherwise as instrumental conditioning, is defined as a learning process where a reward or a punishment determines behavior.
  • Operant conditioning is a learning process where a behavior is determined by a reward or a punishment.
  • The behavior that is reinforced will more likely happen in the future again, while that which was punished will be less likely to happen again.
  • Operant conditioning occurs in everyday life situations, for example in school.

Operant conditioning, known otherwise as instrumental conditioning, is defined as a learning process where a reward or a punishment determines behavior. When using operant conditioning, we make a connection between a specific behavior and the consequence of that behavior. There are multiple examples: the most common ones include tests done in a laboratory.  

For instance, imagine we are testing the behavior of a rat, and we present two buttons in front of it, a red and a blue one. If we give it food as a reward for pressing the blue button and punish it with an electric shock for pressing the red button, it will influence its future behavior. The rat will, expectedly, learn to press the blue button since it is the one that got him the reward.

History Of Operant Conditioning

The term operant conditioning was first used by behavioral psychologist B. F. Skinner, which is the reason why we sometimes refer to this learning process as “Skinnerian conditioning.” He believed that we shouldn’t always look at internal motivations when trying to understand better why people behave a certain way. He proposed the idea that external factors have a more significant influence on behavior, and added that we have ways to observe them.  

Behaviorism started to gain traction in psychology during the 20th century, but most psychologists focused on associative learning. Skinner’s ideas were dealing with the consequences of actions that people make every day and how those consequences affected their future behavior. He tried explaining all the ways we can acquire the behavioral patterns that we use in our everyday lives.

Skinner’s ideas were dealing with the consequences of actions that people make every day and how those consequences affected their future behavior.
Skinner’s ideas were dealing with the consequences of actions that people make every day and how those consequences affected their future behavior.

A similar theory, called “the law of effect, greatly influenced Skinner. This theory proposed that outcomes determine whether a specific action will be repeated. If the outcome is positive, we are more likely to repeat the action, while if it is negative, the action has less chance of being repeated.

Examples Of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning does not only happen in a laboratory; it is a learning method that is present in our everyday lives. We are constantly met with rewards and punishments, even if we’re not entirely aware of it. The most obvious example would be the classroom. Students that do well on tests get praised and get good grades; however, those with lesser scores or those whose behavior isn’t considered exemplary are met with various forms of punishment. The most notable forms are bad grades, but there is also social or peer pressure. 

Another example would be a workplace where similar rules apply. Employees that do well can get a raise and often get praised by their bosses, while those that do not achieve good results are in danger of getting fired. These are all examples of operant conditioning, no matter how simple they may seem. People can use psychology in many different forms, often without even noticing it. And we are influenced by a large number of psychological factors that can significantly determine how we act at any given time. Operant conditioning becomes a part of our subconsciousness without us noticing it. 

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