An example of operant conditioning in everyday life is when an employee completes a project effectively and on time, and receives a salary bonus.
Another example is when a driver goes a certain period without car accidents and receives a lower rate from his or her insurance company. A third example of operant conditioning is when a teacher tells a student he or she cannot go out for recess if he or she keeps interrupting the class. Another instance of operant conditioning is when a parent tells a child to be home before curfew or be grounded.
What Is Operant Conditioning?
Operant condition uses positive and negative incentives in the hope of obtaining a desired and voluntary behavior. Via a system of rewards and punishments, individuals learn to associate types of behavior with certain consequences.
The History of Operant Conditioning
Sometimes called instrumental conditioning, the concept was put forward by the behavioral scientist B.F. Skinner. Unlike other behaviorists who believed learning was a mental and emotional process, Skinner promoted observable behavior as a more effective way of studying learning. With work based on the law of effect put forward by Edward Thorndike, Skinner thought that actions and their consequences were a far more effective way to promote learning and not as simplistic as the ideas of classical conditioning.
He coined the term "operant conditioning" because an operant was any intentional behavior that resulted in consequences. Just as the law of effect showed that actions with pleasant reinforcement were more likely to be repeated and those with unpleasant reinforcement would diminish, operant conditioning shows that actions with positive reinforcements are strengthened and repeated more often. In the same way, individuals are less likely to repeat behaviors with negative outcomes.
Skinner stated that one type of behavior, respondent behavior, is automatic and reflexive, such as pulling a hand away from an incredibly hot object. Respondent behavior is involuntary and therefore cannot be learnt. The other type of behavior, operant behavior, is controlled consciously. Whether on purpose or spontaneous, the consequences of actions from operant behavior determine their repeated occurrence.
To strengthen a behavior, either a positive reinforcer or a negative reinforcer is needed. After a specific behavior, a positive reinforcer is a favorable outcome. For example, when someone tells jokes and people laugh, that person feels good and is more likely to continue telling jokes. Negative reinforcers remove an unfavorable outcome after a specific behavior, providing a pleasant aftereffect. For example, when a child behaves unpleasantly by screaming in a store but stops when handed a treat, a parent is more likely to give the child a treat next time the screaming occurs.
To lessen the occurrence of a type of behavior, either a positive punishment or a negative punishment is needed. Positive punishment is something unfavorable that is applied, such as spanking a naughty child. This reduces the likelihood of the bad behavior occurring again. Negative punishment removes something favorable after a behavior. For example, the naughty child's favorite toy is taken away.
Use of Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning is used in many ways. Receiving paychecks as positive reinforcement motivates people to go to work, just as reducing a student's allowance motivates the student to get better grades.