What is operant conditioning?


The operant conditioning or instrumental conditioning is a learning system, where a subject has a strong chance of repeating forms of behavior that triggers a positive response and in turn prevents recurrence answers negative. The term was introduced by  Edward Thornidke who stated that behavior is an element that serves as an instrument to achieve an end.


What is operant conditioning?

The term operant conditioning refers to a type of learning by association , which is related to the development of behaviors in relation to the consequences that it triggers, and not to stimuli or rewards as happens with classical conditioning.


What is operant conditioning?

It is a form of learning where a subject is more likely to successively repeat forms of behavior that trigger positive responses and in turn less likely to make mistakes that trigger negative responses.



The main characteristics of operant conditioning are:

  • It is a very important method in the area of psychology as a learning system.
  • Teaches the individual that each response leads to an action or reaction.
  • Each reinforcement is positive or negative depending on each goal to be completed.
  • Indispensable for behaviorism .


Thorndike is the first to accept that conditioning includes more than a stimulus-response reaction, each of the responses are followed by both negative and positive consequences and it is he who establishes the formulas of the law of effect . He affirms that the answers that are given are followed by consequences that reinforce it, they may have a greater probability of being repeated when the stimulus happens again.


The first time it was applied was by Skinner in a box, where the study subject was a rat placed in a box where there was a speaker, an electrified floor , a green light bulb, another red light bulb, a button or push button. and a food dispenser.

The system was simple, if the rat hit the button when the bulb was red it would receive an electric shock, while if it pressed the green it would dispense food, all while Skinner spoke to it through the speaker.

Elements of operant conditioning

Positive reinforcement

As its name implies, it is a positive reinforcement that seeks to increase the frequency of a response on a larger scale. This is the most effective method for living beings to learn certain behaviors that are desired. 

Negative reinforcement

Just as negative reinforcements are also a learning method, which seeks to reduce a response or action of the subject. They are called reinforcements because they increase or decrease the number of specific responses or actions.

Exhaust conditioning

This element seeks to increase the frequency of a response because it is interrupted by an aversive stimulus , in other words it is translated as an interruption in which the subject is considered to be unpleasant.

Avoidance conditioning

It is based on an increase in response frequencies to avoid or postpone an aversive stimulus in the next few moments.

The penalty

It tends to cause a drastic decline in a behavior or response because the event following it is aversive . This is evident when a student receives a bad grade and after that his parents punish him in order to prevent this situation from reoccurring.


  • Instigation technique: are those that depend intrinsically on discriminative stimuli in order to increase the conditions to give a behavior.
  • The molding: it is based on a gradual approach to a certain behavior, giving the specific objective, this begins with a response similar to the one that the subject can give and in turn modifying it successively. It is considered very useful when establishing behaviors in subjects who cannot communicate verbally.
  • The fading: it is based on the gradual withdrawal of reinforcements or instigators that had been used to achieve the desired behavior. It is one of the key concepts within operant conditioning, because its progress is carried out within therapy, since it can generalize to many other areas of daily life.
  • The chaining method: it is a behavior that is made up of a chain of steps, which are simple behaviors. The subject in question must complete each step in order to complete the chain, and thus obtain a reward.


The phases of operant conditioning are:

  • Acquisition: this refers to the responses obtained during the learning phase where the responses given are accompanied by reinforcers, either positive or negative. In the course of the acquisition of responses, these become more frequent or stronger, due to the close relationship with the reinforcer.
  • Generalization: is where responses are strengthened through operant processes where a set of circumstances tend to extend or generalize in situations with certain similarity, as does classical conditioning .
  • Extinction: is when the reinforcement is suppressed in some specific responses, that behavior decreases its frequency gradually until it is resumed with the same frequency that happened before the reinforcement. However, it should be noted that there is a risk in which many times it happens that when the reinforcers are withdrawn, there is a gradual increase in the number of responses, leading to frustration before the decrease begins.
  • Spontaneous recovery: it is where, as in classical conditioning , the responses that had been eradicated are witnessed again, which suggests that after a rest the recovery of spontaneous responses occurs.


  • Burrhus Frederic Skinner
  • Ivan Pavlov
  • John b watson
  • Edward thorndike

How it differs from classical conditioning

  • While in classical conditioning everything is based between a conditioned stimulus and an unconditioned one. In operant conditioning, responses are intertwined with a consequence derived from it.
  • In classical conditioning, unconditioned stimuli are not related to the responses of the subject, but in the operant, all consequences are triggered according to the subject’s response.
  • In classical conditioning, the responses given by the subject are involuntary, while in the operant only some of the responses generated are voluntary.


Operant conditioning is the method applied in various learning systems and is also widely used by parents when educating their children. Always starting from positive and negative reinforcements, in addition to this, punishments are also used to reduce unwanted behaviors, however, its importance is not only focused on the fact that it is a main element for associative learning, it should be noted that conditioning operant is one of the bases of behaviorism, which is a branch of psychology currently widely applied by psychotherapists.

Importance of operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is the method used in various learning systems and is also widely used by parents when educating their children. Always starting from positive and negative reinforcements , in addition to this, punishments are also used to reduce unwanted behaviors, however, its importance not only focuses on the fact that it is a main element for associative learning, it should be noted that operant conditioning It is one of the bases of behaviorism, which is a branch of psychology currently widely applied by psychotherapists.

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