What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning describes a psychological process by which an animal's behavior changes over time in response to reinforced learning. Operant conditioning is associated with the behaviorist psychology of B.F. Skinner.

Skinner demonstrated operant conditioning during his experiments with animals placed in a controlled environment that came to be known as a "Skinner box." Inside the Skinner box is a lever and an electrical grid. The lever connects to a mechanism that dispenses pellets when the animal presses the lever, and the electrical grid is capable of shocking the animal.

Skinner's experiments studied the effects of positive and negative reinforcements on behavior. For example, when placed in a Skinner box, a rat with no prior training would accidentally press the lever while moving around the box. Because of the positive reinforcement of receiving a food pellet, the rat would learn to engage in a new behavior, pulling the lever as soon as it entered another Skinner box.

Skinner also demonstrated that operant conditioning could occur through negative reinforcement. For example, he placed a rat in a Skinner box and turned on the electrical grid's current. As the rat moved around the box, it accidentally pressed the lever, which in this experiment stopped the electric current. When placed in another Skinner box, the rat would immediately move to the lever to stop the current. Negative reinforcement, or the removal of a negative stimulus, differs from punishment, which introduces a negative stimulus or removes a positive stimulus. Skinner also studied which conditions led to extinction, when an animal stops its newly learned behavior.

Skinner's principles of behavior modification through operant conditioning can manage human as well as animal behavior. For example, teachers may ignore troublesome students instead of calling attention to and reinforcing their behavior.