Operational conditioning Skinner types of behavior and examples

What is Operational conditioning?

Operational conditioning is a form of learning that uses reinforcement and/or punishment for its functioning . Through this, the chances of a behavior being repeated in the future are established or not. The nature of this process is decisive in shaping an individual’s posture.

In general, when you want to have a positive behavior, the application of rewards is constant for this. On the other hand, when you want to eliminate a characteristic, the application of punishments is the most viable way. Daily life carries several examples of how this dynamic is applied in an instinctive and almost common way.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner , an experimental psychologist, was the first to build studies on this. He indicated this work as a learning methodology to build a person’s behavior. In this way, individuals could be re-educated in order to apply new characteristics to them.

Skinner and Operational conditioning

Skinner coined the term “Operational conditioning” to indicate active behaviors that operate in environments and generate consequences. In short, Skinner tried to explain the ways in which we learn much of our everyday behavior. As it turns out, his perspective has proven to be just as effective in practice .

Going further, he pointed out that observing a person’s thoughts was not as necessary as it was claimed. Not to mention their internal motivations, since they were undetectable to the naked eye. What was important was the observation of how external and observable causes in human behavior influence us.

This behavioral work created by Skinner was influenced by the achievements of psychologist Edward Thorndike . In its place, Thorndike proposed what he called the “law of effect”. That is, actions followed by desirable results are more likely to be repeated than those with an unwanted result.

Life as a huge laboratory

Experimental settings are not the only places where we can observe Operational conditioning at work. It is necessary to bear in mind that this proposal is directly related to the growth process experienced by us . Thus, its application only in the laboratory ends up limiting the observation of real effects.

Conditioning is an integral part of our routine because it has a role of its own in our learning. At every moment we are stimulated and placed before situations with positive or negative results. What we do after them is what will determine how to absorb these experiences as part of our growth.

Natural environments are capable of providing elements of reinforcement and punishment for all of us. Of course, this is constructed more subjectively and at a different frequency and intensity than a structured venue.

Types of behavior

In his work with Operational conditioning, Skinner pointed to the existence of several behaviors. Not a specific gesture, but rather a cluster of factors that influence a way of being . Are they:

instinctive behaviors

These are behaviors that end up happening reflexively and automatically in any situation. For example, removing your hand from a very hot place or moving your leg when the doctor hits your knee. We don’t need to learn this type of behavior because it is part of an involuntary and automatic nature.

operant behaviors

Operant behaviors are under our conscious control. While some may arise spontaneously and others on purpose, it is the consequences of these movements that determine their repetition. Regardless of what they are, actions in the environment and consequences are vital to our learning process.

variable movements

With the possibility of a reward there is an increase in behavior that may lead us to get it again. However, Operational conditioning can also intervene to reduce certain behavior. When we eliminate a desired behavior or include a negative consequence, it ends up preventing unwanted actions .

In this way, Skinner identifies reinforcement and punishment as two vital aspects for conditioning to take effect. Through reinforcement an action can grow and develop as planned while punishment, little by little, makes us abandon failures. Variable reinforcement encourages the permanence of acquired behavior.

Regardless of the case, reinforcement is able to direct the frequency of the behavior to a desired location. “Positive punishment” will replace an unpleasant event in order to reformulate a behavior after it has occurred. Regardless of the intention of the punishment, the behavior tends to diminish until it is extinguished.

Classical and Operational conditioning

Given the way they work, the link between classical conditioning and Operational conditioning is common. However, to differentiate them, it is enough to notice if the conditioning is voluntary or not .

In classical conditioning there is an association of the involuntary response with a stimulus. In turn, the operant mode talks about the association of voluntary behavior with a consequence. For example, a student who is rewarded with incentives, something that does not happen during classical conditioning.

In classical conditioning, the individual assumes a passive posture while in the second there is some action to be rewarded or punished. In the operant, in turn, it is necessary to perform some kind of action in order to be rewarded or even punished. Furthermore, in classical conditioning there is an association with some action that happens naturally.

Examples of Operational conditioning

As stated throughout the text, Operational conditioning can be exemplified by everyday actions. At all times we are exposed to learning situations involving some intentional reward or even punishment. For example:


Laboratory rats are often the primary guinea pigs in any experiment aimed at humanity. For example, think of the one who presses the green button and gets some food or the red one and gets shocked. In this, you will learn that the green button is beneficial and pleasurable while the red one will cause you pain .


It is common that when children get good grades, they can always earn something in return (which often encourages the habit of bargaining in the family. Children end up associating good grades with trips to other cities or even small sporadic luxuries. That way , she will always commit herself to studies to earn something for her previous effort.


Our pets also end up conditioning themselves to obtain pleasures throughout the day if they do something good. For example, think of dogs that respond to their owner’s command to learn a new trick or behave. They understand that if they do this, they will get food as a way of rewarding them.

Final thoughts on Operational conditioning

Operational conditioning proves to be a valid constant when we think about the behavioral reformulation of an individual . As he gains positive incentives, that person begins to make associations with a certain path. This includes punishments, so you can’t repeat something negative and useless.

Such an experiment confirms that positive reinforcement can be used to condition someone as desired. Based on this, the possibilities expand, as even very large features and goals can be implemented as needed.

In order to better monitor your behavioral evolution, enroll in our online Clinical Psychoanalysis course . Through it, you acquire the tool you need to explore your maximum potential and work on your self-knowledge every day. Going beyond Operational conditioning, Psychoanalysis provides you with a conscious exercise to deal with your positive and negative aspects.


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