Topic: “Skinner’sOperant Conditioning theory” Prepared by : Nida_iub Student of Islamia University Bahawalpur

Introduction Of Operant Conditioning:

The theory of operant condition is largely the creation of B.F. Skinner, possibly the most famous American psychologist. Skinner lived during a time when psychology was young. Many would say that psychology wasn’t respected as a “science” during this time. Skinner wanted that to change. Thus, Skinner said that only observable behavior should be studied. Thoughts can’t be observed, he said, and therefore thoughts should not be studied. Of course, during that time period the methods for studying thoughts weren’t as precise as they are now. Skinner called changes in behavior “learning.” As a result, psychology textbook chapters on learning cover mostly behavior.

What is Operant Conditioning?
“Operant conditioning is a term used to describe behavior which has been reinforced by reward or discouraged through punishment.”
For example, if a mother wants her daughter to clean her room than she may give her some sweets every time, she cleans it. Given enough time, the girl will start to clean her room more often because she will get some sweets in return. As a result, the girl’s behavior(cleaning her room) has been modified (conditioned) because she learnt to associate that behavior with a reward.

In the words of Earnest R. Hilgard (1962) : “Operant conditioning refers to the strengthening of a stimulusresponse association by following the response with reinforcing stimulus.” This means, in operant conditioning:

(i) (ii) (iii)

A response is made without any known stimulus. A reinforcement is provided. The response made earlier is strengthen or made more probable.

B. F Skinner :It was B. F. Skinner who is best known for operant conditioning, and the device he invented to research is called the operant conditioning apparatus, also known as Skinner’s box.

Skinner’s experiment of Operant conditioning:B. F. Skinner conducted series of experiments with animals. For conducting the experiment with rats, he designed a special kind of box . The darkened sound proof box has a grid floor, a system of light or sound produced at the time of delivery of a pallet of food in food cup and a lever.

It is arranged so that when the rat presses the liver, the feeder mechanism is activated, a light or a special sound is produced and a small pallet of food is released into food cup. For measuring the reading of experiment, the liver is connected to a recording system which produces a graphical plotting of the number of lever presses against the length of time the rat is in the box. The rat was rewarded for each passing of lever so ultimately the rat learned to press the lever as designed by the experiment. With the help of such experiment, Skinner put forward his theory of “Operant Conditioning”, for learning not only by simple responses like pressing the lever but also for learning the most difficult and complex series of responses.

Components of operant conditioning:1. Reinforcement:

A reinforcement is something which benefits the person receiving it, and so results in an increase of a certain type of behavior. There are two types of reinforcement;


positive reinforcement ii. Negative reinforcement

(i) Positive reinforcement has some sort of value for whoever is
receiving it. For example, food when you are hungry and water when you are thirsty.

In Educational context, praise, reward, medals and other prizes to students are example of positive reinforcement.

(ii) A negative reinforcement has no value for whoever is receiving
it. It causes the receiver to try and escape from it and avoid it. For example, in a case of a student who feels pleased about being outside the class instead of feeling bad, to turn him out of the class would not act as punishment or as a means of behavior modification.

2. punishment:Punishment refers to adding something aversive in order to decrease a behavior. The most common example of this is disciplining (e.g. spanking) a child for misbehaving. The reason we do this is because the child begins to associate being punished with the negative behavior. The punishment is not liked and therefore to avoid it, he or she will stop behaving in that manner.

(i) Positive punishment :
Positive punishment occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by a stimulus, such as introducing a shock or loud noise, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.

(ii) Negative punishment (Penalty):
Negative punishment is also called "Punishment by contingent withdrawal"), It occurs when a behavior (response) is followed by the removal of a stimulus, such as taking away a child's toy following an undesired behavior, resulting in a decrease in that behavior.

3. Extinction:Extinction is the lack of any consequence following a behavior. When a behavior is inconsequential, producing neither favorable nor unfavorable consequences, it will occur with less frequency. When a previously reinforced behavior is no longer reinforced with either positive or negative reinforcement, it leads to a decline in the response.

Reinforcement schedules:In operant conditioning, schedules of reinforcement are an important component of the learning process. Reinforcement and punishment are provided on a schedule. When and how often we reinforce a behavior can have a dramatic impact on the strength and rate of the response. Certain schedules of reinforcement may be more effective in specific situations.

There are two types of reinforcement schedules:

1. Continuous Reinforcement:In continuous reinforcement, the desired behavior is reinforced every single time it occurs. Generally, this schedule is best used during the initial stages of learning in order to create a strong association between the behavior and the response. Once the response if firmly attached, reinforcement is usually switched to a partial reinforcement schedule.

2. Partial Reinforcement:In partial reinforcement, the response is reinforced only part of the time. Learned behaviors are acquired more slowly with partial reinforcement, but the response is more resistant to extinction. There are four schedules of partial reinforcement:

(i)Fixed-ratio schedules :Fixed ratio schedules are those where a response is reinforced only after a specified number of responses. This schedule produces a high, steady rate of responding with only a brief pause after the delivery of the reinforcement.

(ii)Variable-ratio schedules :Variable ratio schedules occur when a response is reinforced after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule creates a high steady rate of responding. Gambling and lottery games are good examples of a reward based on a variable ratio schedule.

(iii)Fixed-interval schedules :Fixed intervals schedules are those where the first response is rewarded only after a specified amount of time has elapsed. This schedule causes high amounts of responding near the end of the interval, but much slower responding immediately after the delivery

of the reinforce.

(iv)Variable-interval schedules :Variable interval schedules occur when a response is rewarded after an unpredictable amount of time has passed. This schedule produces a slow, steady rate of response.

Shaping behavior for operant conditioning:Shaping is a vital concept in operant conditioning. Shaping implies “Reinforce the steps leading to the desired response and that response will eventually occur.”

The experimenter makes judicious use of selective reinforcements to lead the subject to the desired response. Shaping involves the following four psychological principles :


Response generalization :-

This refers to more or less, similar acts of behavior. Response generalization is essential for shaping. For example, a child shows reverence to his father’s friend every time he pays a visit.


Stimulus generalization:-

This happens when a particular response elicited by a particular stimulus also gets elicited by some other similar stimulus. For example a child fears black cat. He will also be afraid of a piece of black cloth.



Chaining means each preceding segment of behavior till the desired response is fully achieved. Every step in the desired direction should be reinforced.

(iv) Habit competition:Correct habits should dominate other competing habits. Adequate reinforcement will help in this direction.

Summary:Operant conditioning (sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards

and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior. Skinner used the term operant to refer to any "active behavior that operates upon the environment to generate consequences" (1953). In other words, Skinner's theory explained how we acquire the range of learned behaviors we exhibit each and every day. Reinforcement is the key element in Skinner's S-R theory. A reinforcer is anything that strengthens the desired response. It could be verbal praise, a good grade or a feeling of increased accomplishment or satisfaction. The theory also covers negative reinforcers -- any stimulus that results in the increased frequency of a response when it is withdrawn (different from aversive stimuli -- punishment -- which result in reduced responses). A great deal of attention was given to schedules of reinforcement (e.g. interval versus ratio) and their effects on establishing and maintaining behavior.

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