Skinner’s Operant Conditioning: Rewards & Punishments

If a dog poops on a carpet, we can either reward or punish the dog. Since both reinforcement and punishment can either be added or taken away, we have four possible ways to teach the dog a lesson. Operant conditioning was made famous by the work of B. F. Skinner and later became the foundation for behavioral therapy, military drills, and animal training. Today Skinner’s work is more relevant than ever. Since he showed that the timing and schedule of reinforcement can create an addictive pattern of response, many tech companies, casinos, and others turn to his body of research to find ways of how to create addictive consumer products.

The full story
operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is based on the idea that we can increase or decrease a certain behavior by adding a consequence. For example, if a dog poops on a carpet, we can either provide reinforcement so the dog does it again or punishment so the dog stops. Both reinforcement and punishment, can either be positive or negative, which means we have four possible ways to teach this dog a lesson. We can draw the four options in a table:


In positive reinforcement, we add something pleasant, like a cookie, to increase the likelihood of a behavior. If reinforcement is negative, we still want to increase the desired behavior, this time by removing something unpleasant, like the leash. In positive punishments, we add an unpleasant response to decrease behavior. When punishment is negative, we also want to decrease behavior, now by removing something pleasant, like the comfy carpet. If we stop any sort of manipulation, the conditioned behavior will eventually disappear again. This is called extinction.

Skinner’s box
skinner box

Operant conditioning was first studied by Edward L. Thorndike and later made famous by the work of B.F. Skinner. Skinner believed that organisms are doing what they do naturally until they accidentally encounter a stimulus that creates conditioning, which results in a change in behavior. To test this, he placed a rat inside an operant conditioning chamber, which later became known as the Skinner box. Among other things, inside the box was a lever that would release food when pressed.

Skinner’s ABCs of Behavior
ABC of behavior

Conditioning happens in a three-term contingency, today known as The ABCs of Behavior. A stands for Antecedent: The rat accidentally hits the lever that triggers the release of food. B stands for Behavior and refers to the response. The rat keeps pressing the lever. C stands for Consequence: Food keeps coming out.

The strength of the response to the conditioning depends on the schedule of reinforcement. If there is always food after pressing, the rat behaves predictably. If food is released randomly, the rat behaves erratically like an addict.

Skinner’s behaviorism

Skinner, born in 1904, was a professor of Psychology and subscribed to Behaviorism. He argued that you can only study behavior that is visible and anything happening only within the mind is either a misconception or irrelevant to science. He thought free will was an illusion because behavior is either random or a reaction to the environment. His work became the foundation for behavioral therapy, military drills, and animal training.

“So informative! I’ve studied this before for an examination and the video helped me remember the information! Thanks a zillion”

– hadis kaboutari


Dig deeper!

Classroom exercise

One individual must exit the room. Now decide on a task which that individual will complete, such as finding a particular book. Then choose a non-verbal way of reinforcing that task, such as clapping your hands. Invite the person to come back into the room and let them try and complete the task. But don’t give any instructions! Every time they are on the right track in regards to completing the task, clap your hands louder. If they move away from performing the task, reduce your applause, or stop it entirely. Once the person understands what they are supposed to do, let them explain the task. Did they get it right?

For more variations of this exercise, check out Praise & Punish Your Peers: Operant Conditioning Activity by the University of Iowa.

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