Operant Conditioning

In life, humans generally exert effort according to what the return may be. This “what you can get out of it” attitude is perhaps the norm but do people exert effort when there is a negative return? This essay will attempt to answer this question and supply an example of operant conditioning of the author’s choosing. There are three main theorists who brought forth the operant conditioning theory but the main theorist is B.F. Skinner and will be the focus of this paper.

What is the theory of Operant Conditioning?

According to Huitt and Hummel (1997) certain consequences result in certain responses that in turn result in chances that the response will change…..this is the core of operant conditioning. These first two sentences explain the theory brought forth by three researchers: Thorndike, Watson and Skinner. To understand operant conditioning (OC) it is important to show the difference between OC and Classical Conditioning (CC). In CC Stimulus is followed by Response resulting in learning. In OC Response is followed by Stimulus resulting in learning. The important point of OC is the consequence that follows the response because this determines the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.

Positive and Negative Reinforcement

Huitt and Hummel (1997) explain in any experiment or learning model the word reinforcement means making behavioral reaction stronger. Thinking in this line positive or negative reinforcement will strengthen behavior of one kind or another. However, a positive reinforcer when added after a response causes increased frequency of the same response. When a negative reinforcer is added after a response there are two different possibilities; one being avoidance and another escape. Usually the learning of avoidance occurs first with escape being learned later.

The question of whether positive reinforcement is more powerful or negative reinforcement is stronger arises and is debatable. The important thing to remember is the desired outcome. Both positive and negative reinforcement are powerful in determining future behavior. Quitting smoking is the classic example. If quitting is the desired response then positive reinforcement is not the strongest reinforcer for quitting and in fact may strengthen the habit. This is the very reason many quitting programs focus on the negative effects of smoking to reinforce the idea of quitting.

Reinforcing Commuting by Train

People in general like to have their private space when commuting because of the freedom of movement. In this case scenario the author proposes intermittent rewards as a beginning reinforcement. The rewards will be both negative and positive to determine if a combination of reinforcers are more effective. In this hypothetical situation there is a toll road commute for all drivers. Every other Tuesday and Thursday will become commuter ecology days… the toll on the road will be double the normal fee and on the same days the train fare will be free. After six months the negative reinforcement will be removed to see if the behavior has been learned by enough drivers. The goal will be that the pleasure of freedom from driving will be enough reinforcer so that escape or avoidance is not longer necessary.

First of Tuesday and Thursday of each month

Tuesday and Thursday

Train Fare Free

Toll Fare Double

Second Tuesday and Thursday of each month

Tuesday and Thursday

Train Fare Normal

Train Fare Normal


Operant Conditioning is a valid form of learning but is not the only form. Whether negative or positive reinforcement is stronger is fully dependant on the desired outcome; however, whether positive or negative reinforcement is used does have a direct effect on the frequency of response. Positive reinforcement will definitely increase the same response while negative reinforcement will have two different responses. Generally, Negative reinforcement will have two outcomes of behavior. One outcome of negative reinforcement is avoidance and another is escape. An interesting aspect of business is the use of both positive and negative reinforcement through manipulation of prices to move buyers from product to product as well as manipulating prices to increase or decrease supplies and thus increasing profits. Operant conditioning is a good way to increase positive learning but as just described can be a slave making technique. Therefore, the knowledge of how we learn is important both to increase our ability to learn quickly but also to protect ourselves from erroneous learning and a big brother society.


Hergenhahn, B.R. & Olson, M.H. (2005). Theories of learning, seventh Edition, Pearson-Prentice Hall.

Huitt, W., & Hummel, J. (1997). An introduction to classical (respondent) conditioning. Educational Psychology Interactive. Valdosta, GA: Valdosta State University. Retrieved August 11, 2008 from http://chiron.valdosta.edu/whuitt/col/behsys/classcnd.html

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