Operant Conditioning Examples

Psychology has had many questions about human behavior since its inception in the late 19th century. Human behavior refers to the potential and expressed mental, physical, and social capacity of human beings to respond to external and internal stimuli throughout life. Operant conditioning is one of the well-known theories of human behavior. To help you better understand operant conditioning, this article delves into its details and provides numerous operant conditioning examples.

What Is The Main Idea Of Operant Conditioning?

It is a learning theory in behavioral psychology that uses consequences to increase or decrease certain behaviors. It is also instrumental conditioning or Skinnerian conditioning. The principles of operant conditioning, reinforcement, and punishment, can be used to shape positive and negative human behaviors depending on the person using the technique.

For example, when lab rats press the lever with the green light on, they receive food pellets. Whereas, when the lab rats experience a mild electric shock when they pull the lever when the red light is there.

Operant learning has an impact on everyday learning. Reinforcements and punishments occur in both natural and unstructured settings.

Brief History Of Operant Conditioning

In 1898, psychologist Edward Thorndike introduces the law of effect. The idea is that behavior is more likely to occur again when it associates with a sense of satisfaction.

Behaviorist B.F. Skinner advanced upon Thorndike’s theory in 1937. He came up with the term ‘operant’ to refer to any active behavior that acts on the environment to produce results. Skinner’s theory explained how humans adopt the learned behaviors that they exhibit every day.

Operant conditioning is not to mix with classical conditioning which dominated early studies of behaviorism in psychology. Operant conditioning involves behavior and consequence, whereas classical conditioning is based on a stimuli and response model. The primary distinction between these two is that one results in an unconscious effect (classical) and the other requires conscious decision-making (operant).

If you share a funny story in class and everyone laughs, you will probably tell that story more frequently in the future.

You will be more likely to raise your hand the following time you have a question or comment if your teacher compliments you for being respectful when you raise your hand to ask a question. The previous action strengthens because it follows by reinforcement or the desired result.

Additionally, actions that result in repercussions or undesirable outcomes, on the other hand, will be weakened and less likely to happen again in the future. If you tell the same joke in another class, but this time no one laughs, you won’t be as likely to do so in the future. If your teacher corrects you for shouting out an answer in class, you might be less likely to disrupt the class again.

What Are The Types Of Behavior?

Skinner differentiated the two types of behaviors:

Respondent Behaviors

These behaviors happen automatically and reflexively, such as jerking your leg back when the doctor taps on your knee or pulling your hand away from a hot stove. These actions are not necessary for you to learn. They merely take place unintentionally and automatically.

Operant Behaviors

These are the behaviors that you consciously choose to engage in. The results of these actions then determine whether or not they recur in the future. While some actions may be done by accident, others are intentional. A significant portion of learning involves your impact on the environment and the results of those actions.

While classical conditioning could answer many questions related to respondent behaviors, Skinner believed that operant conditioning could account for a lot more learning when it comes to operant behaviors.

What Are The 4 Quadrants Of Operant Conditioning?

The four quadrants of operant conditioning are positive reinforcers, negative reinforcers, positive punishment, and negative punishment.


It refers to any occurrence that strengthens or increases the behavior it leads to.

Positive Reinforcers

These are rewarding experiences or results that follow a behavior. Positive reinforcement strengthens a response or behavior with the addition of appreciation or direct reward. Your manager’s bonus for good performance at work serves as a positive reinforcer.

Negative Reinforcers

These remove unfavorable events or results when a specific behavior demonstrates. In these circumstances, the elimination of something deemed unpleasant strengthens a response. For instance, if your child starts screaming in the middle of a restaurant but stops when you give them a treat, your action caused the unpleasant condition to disappear, negatively reinforcing your behavior (not that of your child).


It is the application of an unfavorable event or result that leads to a decrease in the behavior that occurs aft it.

Positive Punishment

​​Another name for positive punishment is punishment by application. Postive punishment involves presenting a negative event or result to make the response that follows weaker. An example of punishment by application is a spanking for misbehavior.

Negative Punishment

It is also what we call punishment by removal. It occurs when a favorable event or outcome removes following the occurrence of a behavior. Negative punishment is taking away a child’s video game after misbehavior.

What Are The Schedules Of Reinforcement In Operant Conditioning?

The process of reinforcement is not always simple. Various variables can affect how quickly and effectively humans retain information. According to Skinner, the frequency and timing of reinforcement had an impact on how quickly and effectively behaviors were.

Several schedules of reinforcement impact the operant conditioning process.

Continuous reinforcement

It includes providing reinforcement every time a response occurs. Learning happens quickly but the response rate is low. Extinction also happens as soon as reinforcement stops.

Fixed-ratio schedule

It is a form of partial reinforcement. Only after a certain number of responses occur are responses reinforcement. This usually results in a fairly consistent response rate.

Fixed-interval schedule

Another type of partial reinforcement is fixed-interval schedules. Only after a predetermined amount of time has passed will reinforcement take place. Response rates remain largely constant and begin to rise as the reinforcement time approaches. But they begin to decline shortly after the reinforcement delivers.

Variable-ratio schedule

It is also a type of partial reinforcement that reinforces a behavior after a range of responses. As a result, there is a high response rate and a gradual extinction rate.

Variable-interval schedule

The final type of partial reinforcement is variable-interval schedules. With this schedule, reinforcement gives after a variable period. It often results in a fast response rate and a slow extinction rate.

What Are Some Examples Of Operant Conditioning?

The operant conditioning examples can be seen anywhere a person is trying to affect the behavior of another.

1. Operant Conditioning Examples in Children

  • You can see how a child uses operant conditioning to shape the behavior of the parents at a dinner table. Assume the child is a picky eater who throws a fit whenever mom puts green beans on their plate. To stop the child from crying, the mom removes the beans from the plate and replaces them with extra pudding. The child stops crying when Mom gives him pudding. By removing an unpleasant stimulus (stop crying), a behavior (giving pudding) is strengthened. As a result, the likelihood of Mom giving pudding in the future has increased.
  • Kindergarten and primary school teachers use operant conditioning principles daily. When a student is well-behaved, the teacher may place a gold star or smiley face sticker next to their name on a poster. A gold star means a lot to a 5-year-old. The teacher has simply used positive reinforcement to reward the desired behavior. Rewarding behavior makes it more likely that it will occur again. Stickers, high-fives, and even a nice smile can all serve as positive reinforcers for a 5-year-old.

2. Operant Conditioning Examples in the Classroom

  • A professor informs his students that they would be exempted from taking the final comprehensive exam if they maintain perfect attendance throughout the entire semester. The final exam was removed to remove an unpleasant stimulus, which negatively reinforced students’ attendance.
  • After a student delivers a class presentation, if the child receives praise from his or her peers and teachers, he will be encouraged to participate in similar activities in the future. If the child is laughed at, he may develop social anxiety or develop a dislike for such activities. This is an example of how positive reinforcement can encourage humans to repeat the same behavior, and negative reinforcement can prevent a behavior.

3. Operant Conditioning Examples in Everyday Life

  • A costly ticket for exceeding the speed limit is unquestionably an instance of positive punishment. When you receive a ticket once for speeding, you are less likely to receive a ticket in the future.
  • Discounts and prizes are frequently given to customers in exchange for their promise to shop with them again in the future. Similarly, most gyms provide discounts to customers who work out a certain number of times and use their diet products.

4. Operant Conditioning Examples in Animals

  • You use operant conditioning to train your dog. If you want to teach your dog to lie down and roll over, you’ll use a technique known as shaping. You reward closer and closer approximations to rolling over because the dog is unlikely to lay down and roll over the first time you give that command. First, you reward the dog for lying down. Then you reward the dog when it lays down on one side of its body. Then you reward the dog for laying to one side and rolling onto its back. Finally, you reward the dog when the dog lays down and completes a full roll. It is an example of positive reinforcement.
  • You teach your dog to fetch by giving him a pat on the head and praise whenever he exhibits the desired behavior. This also serves as a positive reinforcer.

5. Operant Conditioning Examples in Movies and TV shows

  • In the movie Harry Potter and the order of the Pheonix, Professor Umbridge tries to cure Harry of what she thinks is speaking out against the Ministry of Magic by repeatedly writing “I must not tell lies” with a blood quill. A blood quill is a pen that, when used on paper, leaves the exact text that is being written on the paper permanently indented on your skin. It is a form of positive punishment where Umbridge tries to change Harry’s behavior by adding something new.
  • In the TV show The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon Cooper uses positive reinforcement by giving Penny chocolates every time she acted as he had wanted.

6. Operant Conditioning Examples in the Workplace

  • Your boss gets upset and criticizes your performance in front of your coworkers if you don’t turn in a project on time. This serves as a positive punishment, decreasing your propensity to complete tasks late in the future.
  • Operant conditioning can even be used in the workplace to increase productivity and impact employee morale by offering a bonus for hitting a quarterly sales goal. This is an example of positive reinforcement.

How Is Operant Conditioning Used In Therapy?

Cognitive behavioral therapy, a type of psychotherapy, employs operant conditioning therapy. If you have a mental health condition, healthcare professionals can help you change certain unwanted behaviors into more desired behaviors by using reinforcers or punishers.

In behavior therapy, operant conditioning techniques can help improve symptoms of certain mental health conditions such as:

  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
  • Phobias
  • Disorders of the mood
  • Anxiety problems
  • Panic attacks

It also helps people with alcohol and substance use disorders.

The Ending Note

Operant conditioning remains an important and frequently used tool in the learning and behavior modification process to this day. Reinforcers encourage behavior, while punishers discourage it. And, depending on the reinforcement schedule, those behaviors may increase or decrease in frequency and consistency.

You may recognize operant conditioning in your own life, whether it is in your approach to teaching your children good behavior or in training the family dog. Keep in mind that learning takes time. Consider the type of reinforcement or punishment that may be most appropriate for your specific situation, and assess which type of reinforcement schedule may result in the best results.

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