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Components of Operant Conditioning

Updated on December 3, 2016

Operant or Instrumental conditioning is a form of associative learning concerned with the consequences of responses. A favorable consequence makes a response more likely while an unfavorable consequence makes a response less likely. An organisms' response is said to "operate" on their environment and thus elicits a consequence. This article will introduce the following basic terms of Operant Conditioning:

  • Positive Reinforcement
  • The Premack Principle
  • Negative Reinforcement
  • Punishment
  • Extinction
  • Shaping

Positive Reinforcement

This is the increased frequency of a response when it is followed by an appetitive stimulus (something an organism seeks out). A stimulus that increases the frequency of a response is a positive reinforcer. For example, if someone goes to a new restaurant and gets a great meal and excellent service they are likely to return. The great food and excellent service reinforce the response of going to the restaurant. Initially, the response was caused by something else, perhaps a recommendation or an advertisement. Now that this response has been confirmed it is conditioned to happen again.

So in positive reinforcement a desirable behavior is strengthened because something pleasant is added to the response.

Any behavior with a high frequency can be used to reinforce a behavior with a low frequency. This is the Premack Principle. For example, children like to play frequently so playing can be made dependent on cleaning their room or hanging up their clothes.

Negative Reinforcement

This is the increased frequency of a response when it is followed by the removal of an aversive stimulus. A stimulus whose termination increases a response is a negative reinforcer. For example, if the reception on a T.V degrades and tightening a connection fixes it, the response of tightening the connection is negatively reinforced because it removed the aversive stimulus.

So in negative reinforcement a desirable behavior is strengthened because something unpleasant is eliminated by the response.


This is the decreased frequency of a response when followed by an aversive stimulus or punisher. For example, getting pulled over for speeding and being given a ticket should decrease the response of speeding.

Punishment can be effective but it also has drawbacks. Physical punishment can cause injury if it is unrestrained. It can create undesirable emotions in a person (especially children) such as fear or hostility. It is also limited to teaching what not to do. A person could still be left wondering what they should be doing. 


This is the decreased frequency of a response when it is no longer followed by a reinforcer. If the food at a favorite restaurant deteriorated, the response of going there would extinguish. If tightening a connection on a T.V didn't improve the picture a different solution would be sought. 


This is the rewarding of behavior that approximates a target behavior. The behavior must be increasingly similar to the desired behavior to be rewarded. Shaping is an efficient way to teach because it doesn't require the subject to perform perfectly the first time.

If the goal is to teach a dog to roll over the behavior can be shaped instead of waiting for the dog to spontaneously roll over. With shaping, a dog can be rewarded first for sitting, then for tilting the head or leaning to the side, then for lying down, and finally for rolling over. Any response that doesn't take the dog closer to rolling over is ignored.

Shaping is also evident when practicing something new. A beginning piano player is praised for hitting any combination of keys that doesn't violate local noise pollution laws. As he improves he is only praised for progressively better play until eventually he is an accomplished player. This principle applies even if the person plays privately. The player himself is encouraged to continue when he exhibits increasing competence. He rewards himself with a feeling of accomplishment when his play is increasingly similar to his target level. 

Punishment VS Negative Reinforcement

How are they different? With punishment something bad is used to decrease a behavior. With negative reinforcement something bad is removed to increase a behavior.

A teacher who keeps students after class for arriving late is using punishment. A teacher who exempts students from a monthly quiz if they arrived on time everyday for the previous month is using negative reinforcement.

Punishment adds something annoying. Negative reinforcement subtracts something annoying. 


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