Operant Conditioning (Instrumental Conditioning)

Operant conditioning is used in social sciences to escribe the process where an individual learns and modifies behavior due to a stimulus. An operant is a voluntary behavior used to obtain a reinforcer or avoid a punisher. This differs from the classical Pavlovian conditioning theory (sometimes called respondent conditioning), which relies on the response of an organism to a stimulus in the environment, since operant conditioning relies on an organism to initiate an action that is followed by a consequence.

Operant conditioning is the systematic use of reinforcement and punishment to facilitate learning. It emphasizes on the consequences of behavior; respondent conditioning emphasizes involuntary behaviors (reflexes).

Reinforcement and punishment can be positive and negative. Positive reinforcement is generally considered synonymous with reward, while negative reinforcement refers punishment. Operant behavior is more likely to occur in the future as a result of reinforcement, while punishment makes its occurrence less likely. An operant procedure called shaping can use reinforcement by giving it to behaviors that increasingly resemble a target behavior and the individual will gradually display the target behavior. The procedure is also sometimes called the Method of Successive Approximation.

Reinforcement is also used in a procedure called fading, where prompts or assistance of some kind are used simultaneously with the reinforcement of one behavior. The assistance is gradually withdrawn, or faded, and eventually the behavior is emitted without any prompts. While undesirable behaviors can be eliminated by punishment, it is sometimes more appropriate to identify the reinforcers that support them and eliminate them. If there is no reinforcement to support a behavior, it becomes extinct, which means punishment is not necessary. Time-outs, where individuals are placed in a setting that does not allow them to get reinforcement or support inappropriate behaviors, are based on this conclusion.

The accurate identification of punishers and reinforcers is one of the key steps when using operant procedures, because what controls the behavior of one individual sometimes has an impact on another. The type and the amount of the consequence given partially determine its effectiveness, but deprivation (hunger), the gradient (the interval between the behavior and the consequence) and the schedule (the number of behaviors to be emitted before earning a reinforcer) also play a role. A shorter interval generally ensures maximally effective consequences. Early on a continuous schedule should be used, with every instance of the behavior earning a consequence, while later on an individual may emit two, three, five and finally 10 behaviors before earning a reinforcer. Larger ratios are useful when programming generalization and maintenance, while variable schedules can be used to ensure a behavior is resistant to extinction. Each of these operant concepts was demonstrated by American behaviorist Burrhus Frederic Skinner (1904 to 1990), a professor of psychology at Harvard, in highly controlled experiments.

Operant conditioning is highly effective when its use in educational or clinical settings is systematical, as demonstrated by research by Skinner and others. According to Skinner, operating conditioning can also occur spontaneously in the natural environment.

Operant conditioning initially developed from the ideas of Edward Thorndike (1874 to 1949). On the basis of his studies of learning in chickens and cats, Thorndike developed the Law of Effect, according to which a behavior with a positive outcome is likely to occur again. According to his Law of Exercise, when a response occurs in a given situation, the more it occurs, the more strongly it is linked with the situation, while it is also more likely to be repeated.

Classical conditioning, which focuses on antecedents and reflexes, was famously studied by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849 to 1946), used a bell as an antecedent stimulus in his famous research with dogs. The dogs in the experiment salivated after they had come to associate the ringing of the bell with food. Classical conditioning became the dominant model for the study of behaviorism in Russia, while operant conditioning took hold in the United States.

Social Learning theory is another theory, closer to operant conditioning. The emphasis of this perspective is on modeling and observational learning, but it also recognizes the impact of consequences.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

The Structure of Learning: From Sign Stimuli to Sign Language
R. Allen Gardner; Beatrix T. Gardner.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Instrumental Conditioning"
Principles of Psychology: A Systematic Text in the Science of Behavior
Fred S. Keller; William N. Schoenfeld.
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1950
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Operant Conditioning"
Hilgard and Marquis' Conditioning and Learning
Gregory A. Kimble; Ernest Ropiequet Hilgard; Donald George Marquis.
Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1961 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 3 "Classical and Instrumental Conditioning Experiments" and Chap. 4 "Classical and Instrumental Conditioning Compared"
Complex Human Behavior: A Systematic Extension of Learning Principles
Arthur W. Staats; Carolyn K. Staats.
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963
Librarian’s tip: "Operant or Instrumental Conditioning" begins on p. 41
An Introduction to Theories of Personality
Robert B. Ewen.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1998 (5th edition)
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 15 "B. F. Skinner: Radical Behaviorism"
Within-Session Decreases in Operant Responding as a Function of Pre-Session Feedings
Murphy, Eric S.; McSweeney, Frances K.; Kowal, Benjamin P.
The Psychological Record, Vol. 53, No. 2, Spring 2003
Appetitive Backward Conditioning in Pigeons
Hemmes, Nancy S.; Brown, Bruce L.; De Vaca, Soledad Cabeza.
The Psychological Record, Vol. 44, No. 2, Spring 1994
For Better or Worse: Effect of Upcoming Reinforcer Type on Rats' Lever Pressing for Low-Concentration Sucrose Reinforcers
Weatherly, Jeffrey N.; Stout, Jason E.; Davis, Carolyn S.; Melville, Cam L.
The Psychological Record, Vol. 51, No. 4, Fall 2001
Mechanisms of Learning and Motivation: A Memorial Volume to Jerzy Konorski
Anthony Dickinson; Robert A. Boakes.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1979
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 6 "Instrumental (Type II) Conditioning"
The Operant-Respondent Distinction Revisited: Toward an Understanding of Stimulus Equivalence
Rehfeldt, Ruth Anne; Hayes, Linda J.
The Psychological Record, Vol. 48, No. 2, Spring 1998
Experimental Foundations of Behavioral Medicines: Conditioning Approaches
Robert Ader; Herbert Weiner; Andrew Baum.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1988
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 1 "Learned Aspects Of Cardiovascular Regulation"
Handbook of Contemporary Learning Theories
Robert R. Mowrer; Stephen B. Klein.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2001
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "Incentive Processes in Instrumental Conditioning"
Individual Differences in Infancy: Reliability, Stability, Prediction
John Colombo; Jeffrey Fagen; Society for Research in Child Development.
Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 1990
Librarian’s tip: "Instrumental Conditioning" begins on p. 165
Search for more books and articles on operant conditioning