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Use Operant Conditioning to Change Behavior: How Does Using Operant or Instrumental Conditioning Work?

Updated on October 17, 2013

How Do You Change Someone's Behavior?

Changing behavior has been the focus of much attention throughout the course of human history. Behavior has been examined by politicians, religious leaders, dictators, teachers, store managers and people in supervisory or leadership roles in every facet of society. Club officers of social groups have sat around tables discussing strategies to increase the behavior of attendance for club meetings. Politicians have used taxes to manipulate the purchasing of items such as alcohol and cigarettes. Religious leaders and dictators have used the promises of death or the threat of life to influence the behavior of the masses. Teachers have often resorted to bribery in order to reduce the chaos in classrooms full of unruly children who refuse to listen. Psychologist studying operant conditioning have examined the role of using positive and negative reinforcement to shape the behavior of an organism.

Reinforce What You Want

Olson and Hergenhahn (2009) describe operant conditioning by explaining that “to modify behavior, one merely has to find something that is reinforcing for the organism whose behavior one wishes to modify, wait until the desired behavior occurs, and then immediately reinforce the organism” (p. 76). This means that the reinforcement is viewed as a result of the organisms behavior. The organism will begin to attribute this reinforcement to the consequences of the performing the behavior. Olson and Hergenhahn (2009) state further that an increase in the performance of the behavior is seen once the association is made and that the increase will become more prominent with each successive pairing. The stronger the association between the behavior and the reinforcement the greater the frequency with which the organism will perform the behavior.

How To Use Operant Conditioning in a Classroom

Classroom behavior can be managed through the use of both positive and negative reinforcement. A classroom of forty students aged ten to eleven can at times be difficult to control. This is especially true when the children have little to no play time. Reinforcement strategies can be used to maintain proper behavior. Positive reinforcement can be applied when the children participate in class by handing out stickers when the children give a correct answer to a question. Another example of positive reinforcement can be seen in dividing the class into two or more groups and give points to each group for either correct answers or for good behavior. This second example can also lead to the use of negative reinforcement. When the behavior of a group becomes less than desired points can be removed from that groups tally. The use of these points can be combined with a larger reward. A goal can be established for a certain number of points, say fifty for the whole class. If between Monday and Thursday the class earns a total of fifty points the teacher in charge of the class promises them a game. In this situation the rewards and penalties are completely dependent of the child's behavior. To get the sticker, a point or the game requires specific defined behavior from the child. The removal of a point also requires specific defined behavior from the child.


To modify or create a behavior one first has to find something that motivates the organism into action. This motivating stimulus must then be produced with every occurrence of the desired behavior. Once the association is made between the stimulus and the desired behavior the effect will be an increase in the behavior. This can be done either by adding a stimulus or removing one. The use of positive or negative reinforcement in operant conditioning can be used effectively to modify the behavior or any organism be it a rodent, a human child, a congregation or tax paying citizens.


Olson, M and Hergenhahn, B (2009). An Introduction to Theories of Learning (8th ed.). Retrieved from the University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.

Copyright Notice

© Copyright 2012. Wesley Meacham- This article is copyright protected and is the property of Wesley Meacham. All images in this article, unless otherwise stated, are the property of Wesley Meacham. Please do not copy this article in whole or in part without giving credit to the original author.


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