Operant conditioning is a principle developed by the psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904-1990), who was responsible for a philosophy of science he called ‘radical behaviourism’.
Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs as a result of rewards and punishments for behaviour. Operant or instrumental conditioning was Skinner’s term to describe the effects of the consequences of a particular behaviour on the future occurrence of that behaviour. In other words, the association that is made between a behaviour and the consequence of the behaviour.
There are four types of Operant Conditioning:
Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Punishment, and Extinction.
Both Positive and Negative Reinforcement strengthen (or increase the likelihood of) behaviour, while both Punishment and Extinction weaken (or reduce the incidence of) behaviour.
Some key concepts in operant conditioning:
A reinforcer is any event that either strengthens or increases the behaviour it follows. There are two kinds of reinforcers:
Positive reinforcers are favourable events or outcomes that are presented immediately after the behaviour. For example:
A hungry guinea-pig pushes its nose against a lever in its cage and receives food. The food is a positive condition for the hungry guinea-pig. It pushes the lever again, and again receives food. The guinea-pig’s behaviour of pushing the lever is strengthened or increased by the consequence of receiving food.
Negative reinforcers involve the removal of an unfavourable events or outcomes after the display of a behaviour.
A guinea-pig is placed in a cage and immediately receives a mild electrical shock on its feet. The shock is a negative condition for the guinea-pig. The guinea-pig pushes a lever and the shock stops. The guinea-pig receives another shock, pushes the lever again, and again the shock stops. The guinea-pig’s behaviour of pushing the lever is strengthened by the consequence of stopping the shock.
In both of these cases of reinforcement, the behaviour increases.
Punishment is the presentation of an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behaviour it follows. In the case of punishment, the behaviour decreases.
A guinea-pig pushes a lever in its cage and receives a mild electrical shock on its feet. The shock is a negative condition for the guinea-pig. The guinea-pig pushes the lever again and again receives an electric shock. The guinea-pig’s behaviour of pressing the lever is weakened by the consequence of receiving the shock.
Within Extinction, a behaviour is weakened by the consequence of not experiencing a positive condition or stopping a negative condition. For example:
A guinea-pig pushes a lever in its cage and nothing positive or negative happens. The guinea-pig presses the lever again and again nothing happens. The guinea-pig’s behaviour of pressing the lever is weakened by the consequence of not experiencing anything positive or stopping anything negative. Subsequently, the likelihood of the guinea-pig continuing to push the lever is reduced