Operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning, is a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive) for that behavior.1
For example, when lab rats press a lever when a green light is on, they receive a food pellet as a reward. When they press the lever when a red light is on, they receive a mild electric shock. As a result, they learn to press the lever when the green light is on and avoid the red light.
But operant conditioning is not just something that takes place in experimental settings while training lab animals. It also plays a powerful role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and punishment take place in natural settings all the time, as well as in more structured settings such as classrooms or therapy sessions.
Types of Behaviors
Skinner distinguished between two different types of behaviors
- Respondent behaviors are those that occur automatically and reflexively, such as pulling your hand back from a hot stove or jerking your leg when the doctor taps on your knee. You don’t have to learn these behaviors. They simply occur automatically and involuntarily.
- Operant behaviors, on the other hand, are those under our conscious control. Some may occur spontaneously and others purposely, but it is the consequences of these actions that then influence whether or not they occur again in the future. Our actions on the environment and the consequences of that action make up an important part of the learning process.
While classical conditioning could account for respondent behaviors, Skinner realized that it could not account for a great deal of learning. Instead, Skinner suggested that operant conditioning held far greater importance.