Last week, we explored one process of learning known as classical conditioning. Operant conditioning is a similar concept in that it’s also a type of learning classified as “conditioning,” but there are notable differences between these two types of learning theories. For example, whereas classical conditioning often occurs involuntarily and without our conscious awareness, operant conditioning tends to be linked to the consequences of our voluntary behaviors.


The process of operant conditioning involves strengthening or weakening our tendency to engage in voluntary behaviors depending on whether those responses have been reinforced or punished in the past. This process was first described and studied by the researchers Edward Thorndike and, more famously, B.F. Skinner, who used pigeons to research the emerging principle that pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, while unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated. In terms of operant conditioning, “reinforced” means that the behavior is more likely to occur again; “punished” means that the behavior is less likely to occur again.


Reinforcement and punishment are sub-divided into “positive” and “negative,” both terms that have a unique meaning in terms of operant conditioning. In this sense, “positive” does not mean “good,” but rather refers to situations in which something is added; likewise, “negative” does not imply “bad,” but rather refers to situations in which something is taken away. There are 4 possible outcomes: 1. positive reinforcement, 2. negative reinforcement, 3. positive punishment, and 4. negative punishment.


Positive reinforcement involves strengthening a behavior by adding something the individual deems rewarding. Paychecks, trophies, grades, diplomas, hugs, smiles, praise, “likes” on social media, and privileges, such as earned screen time or fun outings, are all examples of positive reinforcement strategies (assuming the person enjoys these things). Positive reinforcement also occurs as people move closer to desired goals because it leads to the experience of feelings that are often perceived as pleasant/enjoyable, including pride, confidence, and hope.


Negative reinforcement also increases the chances that an individual will engage in a particular behavior in the future. However, unlike positive reinforcement which involves adding something positive in response to the behavior, negative reinforcement occurs in response to taking away something negative. Wearing sunscreen helps to avoid a sunburn, taking out the trash helps to avoid your parent/partner/roommates nagging, going to bed early helps to avoid feeling tired the next day, and buckling your seatbelt shuts off the irritating noise many cars produce when the car is in motion with an unbuckled seatbelt. The removal of something aversive can be a very compelling motivator for behaving in particular ways in the future!


Punishment always implies that the behavior will be less likely to occur in the future. Positive punishment involves adding something unpleasant to the situation, such as yelling, teasing, pain, or embarrassment. When a child touches a hot stove for the first time, they experience positive punishment in the form of a burn; in the future, they are unlikely to touch another hot surface due to having learned the hard way about the difficult consequences of that behavior. Speeding tickets are another example of positive punishment; in response to driving too fast, you are given a punishing bill in the form of a ticket and are often required to attend traffic school in order to avoid further punishment (an increased insurance premium).


Negative punishment involves removing something that an individual perceives as good or desired and, therefore, results in the behavior being less likely to occur again in the future. Negative punishment can involve taking away money (such as a finance charge or late fee), removing privileges (such as driving a car or having a cell phone), or losing social status (such as being excluded from a school or workgroup). Negative punishment is often used with children in school and home settings, such as through “time out” (removing playtime or attention), having a toy taken away for throwing it at their sibling, or leaving a fun party early in response to misbehavior.


Of course, life is complicated and influenced by a myriad of factors at any given time. In some cases, it’s very clear to ascertain which type of operant conditioning strategy is motivating certain behaviors; in other cases, it can be quite difficult to determine. For example, drinking alcohol can be positively reinforcing because it feels pleasurable, negatively reinforcing because it removes challenging feelings like anxiety or self-consciousness, positively punishing because it often leads to a hangover the next day, and negatively punishing because it is expensive (takes away money) and heightens the risk of problematic outcomes such as health issues, driving accidents, and arguments with family and friends.


In general, reinforcement is more effective than punishment because people learn a more powerful lesson and are more motivated to act in particular ways if there’s something to gain on the line rather than something to lose. If punishment is used, negative punishment tends to be more effective than positive punishment. When it comes to reinforcement, the influence of how fast a behavior is acquired and how strongly that behavior is reinforced (that is, how likely it is to occur again), depends on the timing and frequency of the consequences in any given situation. When and how a consequence is reinforced (or not) is known as a schedule of reinforcement and will be discussed along with operant extinction in next week’s article. See you then!