Operant Conditioning and Skinner's Experiments

Topic: Operant Conditioning & Skinner's Experiments

Posted by: Steven N

Key Terms:

  • Operant conditioning: a type of learning in which behavior is strengthened if followed by a reinforcer or diminished if followed by a punisher.
  • Respondent behavior: behavior that occurs as an automatic response to some stimulus: Skinner's term for behavior learned through classical conditioning.
  • Operant behavior: behavior that operates on the environment, producing consequences.
  • Law of effect: Thorndike’s principle that behaviors followed by favorable consequences become more likely, and that behaviors followed by unfavorable consequences become less likely.
  • Operant Chamber (Skinner Box): a chamber containing a bar or key that an animal can manipulate to obtain a food or water reinforcer, with attached devices to record the animal's rate of bar pressing or key pecking.
  • Shaping: an operant conditioning procedure in which reinforcers guide behavior toward closer and closer approximations of a desired goal.
  • Reinforcement: in operant conditioning, any event that strengthens the behavior it follows.
  • Primary reinforcer: an innately reinforcing stimulus, such as one that satisfies a biological need.
  • Conditioned reinforcer: a stimulus that gains its reinforcing power through its association with a primary reinforcer.
  • Continuous reinforcement: reinforcing the desired response every time it occurs.
  • Partial (intermittent) reinforcement: reinforcing a response only part of the time; results in slower acquisition of a response but much greater resistance to extinction than does continuous reinforcement.
  • Fixed-ratio schedule: in operant conditioning, a schedule of reinforcement that reinforces a response only after a specified number of responses.
  • Variable-ration schedule: in operant conditioning, a schedule of reinforcement that reinforces a response after an unpredictable number of responses.
  • Fixed-interval schedule: in operant conditioning, a schedule of reinforcement that reinforces a response only after a specified time has elapsed.
  • Variable-interval schedule: in operant conditioning, a schedule of reinforcement that reinforces a response at unpredictable time intervals.

Through operant conditioning, subjects can show different behaviors based on their consequences. Thus, subjects will be more likely to repeat if it is rewarded behaviors, or less likely to repeat if it is punished behaviors. There are clear difference between operant conditioning and classical conditioning. In classical conditioning, it associates with respondent behaviors, whereas in operant behavior, it associates with operant behavior.


B.F. Skinner (1904-1990) is a influential figure in modern psychology. He focused on the law of effect, which is the idea that "rewarded behavior is likely to recur". He came up with the operant chamber, what is also known as the Skinner Box. With these aids, Skinner used shaping in order to understand the conditions that provides efficient learning.

Operant Conditioning and Skinner's Experiments - The Neuron

Shaping Behavior

By making rewards dependent on desired behaviors, researchers can gradually shape complex behaviors, such as hungry rat to press a bar to receive its reward. By shaping these behaviors, researchers can also determine what they recognize. For example with trainings, animals like pigeons can distinguish among flowers, people, cars, and chairs. With training, pigeons can also be able to distinguish between Bach's music and Stravinsky's. With training, parents can reshape their children's to have proper-manners. Or vice versa. With unintentional training, parents can reshape their children to have bad-manners. Take a look at example.

Billy: Could you tie my shoes?
Dad: (Continues to read paper)
Billy: Dad, I need my shoes tied.
Dad: Uh, yea, just a minute.
Dad: How many times have I told you not to whine? Now, which shoe do we do first?

Billy's whining allows Billy to achieve his reward, having his shoes tied. Therefore, Billy will repeat whining in order to achieve his rewards.

Principle of Reinforcement

People believe the concept of reinforcement as a reward. However, reinforcement can be far more than just rewards. For example, students being yelled at could create an increased behavior of being offended. There are two types of reinforcement-- positive and negative. Positive reinforcement adds a pleasurable stimulus after a subject responds to an action. Negative reinforcements takes away an aversive stimulus after a subject responds to an action.

Primary and Conditioned Reinforcers

Primary reinforcers are innate behaviors. For example, one feels satisfied after eating when hungry. Conditioned reinforcers are behaviors that are learned. For example, the rat learns that pressing the bottom will allow it have a reward.

Immediate and Delayed Reinforcers

Sometimes, humans can delay the reinforcement. For example having paychecks at the last day of the week, getting good grades at the end of the year, and so on. These delays are great step toward success because they can allow one to achieve more valued rewards. But other times, humans may want to have immediate reinforcers. For example, smokers, alcoholics, and drug users want to immediately smoke, drink, or do drugs.

Reinforcement and Schedules

Real life does not always provide continuous reinforcement, where one gets reinforced every time he/she responds. For example, salesperson does not always succeed selling. Rather, the world provides partial reinforcement, where reinforcement are sometimes met and sometimes not. There are four different types of partial reinforcement schedules:

Fixed-ratio schedules: Reinforcement occurs after a certain number of responses. (ex. monthly wage)
Variable-ratio schedules: Reinforcement occurs in an unpredictable number of responses. (ex. fishing)
Fixed-interval schedules: Reinforcement occurs at the first response after a certain time period. (ex. checking email)
Variable-interval schedules: Reinforcement occurs at the first response after an unpredictable time period. (ex. "You've got mail" notification)

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Example of the Skinner Box experiment on rats

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