Operant Conditioning, a Way of Changing Behavior

Operant conditioning is based on the application of reinforcement and punishment. It's a very useful tool when you want to modify or stop a behavior. In this article, we talk about the kinds of punishments and rewards within this theoretical framework.
Operant Conditioning, a Way of Changing Behavior

Last update: 23 May, 2021

Change, both in therapy and daily life, can be brought about with different modifications. Your behavior is what it is for several different reasons. These involve your personal history, your emotional baggage, your capabilities, and the rewards you want to get from your behavior (operant conditioning).

Thorndike originally studied this particular area of experimental psychology. He developed differential psychology. Then, Pavlov identified classical conditioning. After that came Skinner. He developed operant conditioning and the punishment and reward system.

Defended by the behavioral model, operant conditioning is a kind of learning. It means you act according to the consequences you expect to happen. We call this associative learning. Nowadays, we know that the use of positive reinforcement is usually more effective in changing behavior than the use of punishment.

A woman thinking.

Positive and negative reinforcement in operant conditioning

Operant conditioning states that two kinds of reinforcement can follow behavior:

  • Positive reinforcement. For example, if a child cleans their room, their parent gives them a bag of candy.
  • Negative reinforcement. Something aversive to the individual is removed.

In other words, positive reinforcement adds something, while negative reinforcement takes something away.

Positive and negative punishment in operant conditioning

Reinforcement makes the individual more likely to repeat the behavior. However, punishment achieves the opposite. If it’s given after a particular behavior, that behavior will be less likely to occur again. In other words, the behavior becomes extinct. There are two types of punishment:

  • Positive punishment. Once again, something is added. For example, the authorities impose a sanction on an individual in the way of voluntary work for the community.
  • Negative punishment. Something is taken away. For instance, the authorities take away an individual’s driving license for a driving offense.

Therefore, reinforcements and punishments influence behavior. All parents know this, even those who’ve never studied any form of psychology. However, they should always consider the best way to impose reinforcements. They need a well-developed stimulus control. They also should take factors like motivation and the environment into account.

Here’s a list of operant conditioning techniques used in the modification of behavior.

Negative punishment techniques

  • Response cost. Parents/teachers remove reinforcement when inappropriate behavior occurs. They return it when appropriate behavior occurs. Before starting, they must make sure that they have an adequate number of reinforcements at their disposal. If they aren’t, the child may stop caring or they may no longer work as a reinforcement.

Positive punishment techniques

Satiation

Satiation involves the parent/teacher continually reinforcing their negative behavior. Consequently, the child eventually gets bored with it or realizes how futile it is. For example, a child shouts that they want to be left alone. A satiating technique would mean leaving them alone for a long time, not just the short time they want.

Overcorrection

Parents/teachers expect the child to pay for the consequences of their actions. Restitutional overcorrection means the child has to return the environment to a better condition than before their bad behavior. For example, if they stuck gum under their desk, they have to then check and clean all the desks in the classroom.

On the other hand, positive practice means a person has to repeatedly carry out a certain behavior in the correct way. For example, a child has to repeatedly take the gum out of their mouth, wrap it up in a piece of paper, and throw it away.

A girl tidying her toys, perhaps an example of operant conditioning.

Differential reinforcement in operant conditioning

Differential reinforcement is the process of reinforcing a specific response in a particular context and not reinforcing (extinguishing) other responses. Here, we mention three techniques of differential reinforcement that use operant conditioning.

  • Differential reinforcement of low rates. This aims to lower the frequency of certain behavior. For this reason, the parent/teacher only reinforces when the behavior doesn’t occur too often. For example, say a child raises their hand and asks questions in class too many times, not allowing others to participate. If they continue to do it, the teacher doesn’t reinforce the behavior. However, if the child reduces the number of times they put their hand up, the teacher starts to reinforce that behavior. They continue this until the child puts their hand up an acceptable number of times.
  • Differential reinforcement of alternative behavior. The teacher reinforces behavior that’s a viable alternative to the problematic behavior. Using the same example as above, let’s say the child, instead of interrupting the class, does their homework in class. The teacher then reinforces this behavior.
  • Differential reinforcement of incompatible behavior. Parents/teachers only reinforce behavior that can’t occur at the same time as the problem behavior. For example, they might put a pen in the hand of a child who bites their nails.

Parents and teachers must always carry out enforcement programs in an appropriate, effective, intelligent, and responsible way. Furthermore, they must make the goals and action plan clear.

In many cases, an individual will resist these programs. In fact, they’ll tend to want reinforcement regardless of what’s been agreed. For this reason, teachers and parents need patience, social skills, subtlety, and precision.

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Operant conditioning is a learning method that uses reinforcement or punishment to change the probability of a behavior reoccurring in the future.



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  • Skinner, B. F. (1975e). El análisis operacional de los términos psicológicos. En Registro acumulativo: Selección de la obra de Skinner realizada por el propio autor. (pp. 413-429). Barcelona: Fontanella.
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