What Is Operant Conditioning? Operant Conditioning In A Nutshell

Operant conditioning was first described by American psychologist and behaviorist B. F. Skinner in 1938. Skinner believed classical conditioning was too simplistic to adequately account for complex human behavior. Instead, he suggested the best way to explain and predict behavior was to analyze the external causes of an action and its consequences. Operant conditioning is a method of learning where the consequences of a response determine the probability of it being repeated. 

Understanding operant conditioning

This approach he called operant conditioning, a theory based on Edward Thorndike’s 1898 law of effect principle. Skinner used the term operant to describe “any active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences.” 

Operant conditioning is based on a relatively simple premise. Actions that are reinforced or rewarded will be strengthened and more likely to occur in the future. Actions that are punished or lead to undesirable consequences are less likely to occur in the future. These associations then lead to a connection being made between a behavior and its consequences. 

The phenomenon is perhaps best exemplified by describing a laboratory rat in a Skinner box, otherwise known as an operant conditioning chamber. When the rat presses a lever while a green light is illuminated, it is rewarded with food. When the rat presses the same level under a red light, it is punished with a mild electric shock. Over time, the rat learns to only press the lever when the green light is illuminated.

Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning is one of many stimulus-response behavioral theories. Each theory assumes behavior manifests as a result of the interplay between stimulus and response. That is, behavior cannot exist without a stimulus of some kind.

Operant conditioning components

There are four key components of operant conditioning. Let’s take a look at each below.


Reinforcers describe any factor that strengthens or increases the behavior it follows. 

There are two types:

  1. Positive reinforcers – favorable events or outcomes that present themselves after the behavior, such as praise or a direct reward. A bonus given to an employee for exceeding their sales target is an example of a positive reinforcer.
  2. Negative reinforcers – here, unfavorable events or outcomes are removed after the display of certain behavior. Chocolate that is used by parents to stop their children from misbehaving in public is an example of a negative reinforcer.


Punishment is defined as an adverse event or outcome that causes a decrease in the behavior it follows.

Here, there are also two types:

  1. Positive punishment – where an unfavorable event or outcome is presented to weaken the response it follows. Returning to the previous example, parents who spank their children for misbehaving in public are using positive punishment. This approach is sometimes referred to as punishment by application.
  2. Negative punishment – where a favorable event or outcome is removed after certain behavior takes place. For example, taking away the video game privileges of a child may be necessary if they fail to complete their assigned homework. This approach is sometimes called punishment by removal.

Key takeaways:

  • Operant conditioning is a method of learning where the consequences of a response determine the probability of it being repeated. The learning method is a stimulus-response theory developed by B.F. Skinner in 1938, who drew inspiration from the work of Edward Thorndike.
  • Operant conditioning is based on a relatively simple premise. Actions that are reinforced will be strengthened and more likely to occur in the future. Actions that are punished are less likely to occur in the future.
  • Operant conditioning has four key components: positive reinforcers, negative reinforcers, positive punishment, and negative punishment. Each component differs according to how rewards and punishments are used to influence behavior.

Connected Business Concepts & Frameworks

As highlighted by German psychologist Gerd Gigerenzer in the paper “Heuristic Decision Making,” the term heuristic is of Greek origin, meaning “serving to find out or discover.” More precisely, a heuristic is a fast and accurate way to make decisions in the real world, which is driven by uncertainty.
The recognition heuristic is a psychological model of judgment and decision making. It is part of a suite of simple and economical heuristics proposed by psychologists Daniel Goldstein and Gerd Gigerenzer. The recognition heuristic argues that inferences are made about an object based on whether it is recognized or not.
The representativeness heuristic was first described by psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. The representativeness heuristic judges the probability of an event according to the degree to which that event resembles a broader class. When queried, most will choose the first option because the description of John matches the stereotype we may hold for an archaeologist.
The take-the-best heuristic is a decision-making shortcut that helps an individual choose between several alternatives. The take-the-best (TTB) heuristic decides between two or more alternatives based on a single good attribute, otherwise known as a cue. In the process, less desirable attributes are ignored.
The concept of cognitive biases was introduced and popularized by the work of Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman since 1972. Biases are seen as systematic errors and flaws that make humans deviate from the standards of rationality, thus making us inept at making good decisions under uncertainty.
The bundling bias is a cognitive bias in e-commerce where a consumer tends not to use all of the products bought as a group, or bundle. Bundling occurs when individual products or services are sold together as a bundle. Common examples are tickets and experiences. The bundling bias dictates that consumers are less likely to use each item in the bundle. This means that the value of the bundle and indeed the value of each item in the bundle is decreased.
The Barnum Effect is a cognitive bias where individuals believe that generic information – which applies to most people – is specifically tailored for themselves.

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