Skinner's Operant Conditioning Theory

Skinner, first time, got the idea that most of the responses could not be attributed to the known stimuli. He defined two types of responses the one

Skinner's Operant Conditioning

Skinner begin a series of experiments to find the consequences of the rewards in repeating and maintaining behaviour. Based on the findings of his experiments, he concluded that "behaviour is shaped and maintained by its consequences. It is operated by the organism and maintained by its result." The occurrence of such behaviour was named as operant behaviour and the process of learning that plays the part in learning such behaviour was named by him as operant conditioning.

Respondent and Operant Behaviour

As we have seen, the earlier theories of learning assumed the existence of a known stimulus as a necessary pre-requisite for evoking a response. Skinner, first time, got the idea that most of the responses could not be attributed to the known stimuli. He defined two types of responses the one 'elicited' by known stimuli which he called as "respondent behaviour" and the other "emitted" by the unknown stimuli which he called as "Operant behaviour". Examples of respondent behaviour may include all reflexes such as jerking one's hands when jabbed with a pin and the pupillary constriction on account of bright light or salivation in the presence of food.

In the respondent behaviour the stimulus preceding the response is responsible for causing the behaviour. On the other hand, in the operant behaviour in the stimulus causing such behaviour is unknown and it is not important to know the cause of the behaviour. Here it is not the stimulus but the consequences of the behaviour which are more important and hence the operant behaviour is controlled by the strength of its consequences instead of stimuli. Examples of such behaviour may include the behaviour like moving one's hand, arms or legs arbitrarily, a child abandoning one toy in favour of the other, eating a meal, writing a letter. standing up and walking about and similar other everyday activities.

Operant:- Skinner considers an operant as a set of acts which constitutes an organism's doing something e.g., raising its head, walking about, pushing a lever, etc.

Reinforcer and Reinforcement:- The concept of reinforcement is identical to the presentation of a reward. A reinforcer is the stimulus whose presentation or removal increases the probability of a response re-occurring. Skinner thinks of two kinds of reinforcer positive and negative.

A positive reinforcer is any stimulus the introduction or presentation of which increase the likelihood of a particular behaviour. Food, water, sexual contract, etc., are classified as positive reinforcers. A negative reinforcer is any stimulus the removal or withdrawal of which increases the likelihood of a particular behaviour. Electric shock, a loud noise, etc., are said to be negative reinforcers.

The Schedules of Reinforcement:- Skinner put forward the idea of planning of Schedules of reinforcement of conditioning the operant behaviour of the organism. The important schedules are as under:

  1. Continuous Reinforcement Schedule:- It is hundred per cent reinforcement schedule where provision is made to reinforce or reward every correct response of the organism during acquisition of a learning. For example, a student may be rewarded for every correct answer he gives to the questions or problems put by his teacher.
  2. Fixed Interval Reinforcement Schedule:- In this schedule the organism is rewarded for a response made only after a set interval of time e.g., every 3 minutes or every 5 minutes. How many times he has given correct response during this fixed interval of time does not matter; it is only on the expiry of the fixed interval, that he is presented with some reinforcement.
  3. Fixed Radio Reinforcement Schedule:- In this schedule ther reinforcement is given after a fixed number of response. A rat, for example, might be given a pallet of food after a certain number of level presses. A student may be properly rewarded that answering a fixed number of questions, say 3 or 5. Fixed ratio schedule is used in some factories, and by employers of casual workers or labourer where salary is paid on a piece work basis, number of garments sewn and number of baskets of fruit packed.
  4. Variable Reinforcement Schedule:- When reinforcement is given at varying intervals of time or after a varying number of responses, it is called a variable reinforcement schedule. In this case reinforcement is intermittent or irregular. The individual does not know when he is going to be rewarded and consequently he remains motivated throughout the learning process in the wait of reinforcement. The most common example of such schedule in human behaviour is the reinforcement operation schedules of gambling devices.

Skinner's Experiments Regarding Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner conducted a series of experiments with animals. For conducting the experiments with rats, he designed a special apparatus known as Skinner's Box. It was a much modified form of the puzzle box used by Thorndike for his experiments with cats. The darkened sound-proof box mainly consists of a grid floor, a system of light or sound produced at the time of delivering a pallet of food in the food cup, a lever and a food cup.

Skinner's Operant Conditioning Theory

It is arranged so that when a rat (hungry or thirsty) presses the lever, the feeder mechanism is activated, a light or a special sound is produced and a small pallet of food (or small drops of water) is released into the food cup. For recording the observations of the experiments, the lever is connected with a recording system which produces a graphical tracing of the lever pressing against the length of time and rat is in the box.

To begin with, Skinner, in one of his experiments, placed a hungry rat in the above described box. In this experiment pressing of the bar in a desirable way by the rat could result in the production of a click sound and presence of a good pallet. The click-sound acted as a clue or signal indicating to the rat that if it responds by going to the food cup, it will be rewarded.

The rat was rewarded for each of his proper attempts for pressing the lever. The lever press response having been rewarded, was repeated and when it occurred, it was again rewarded which further increased the probability of the repetition of the lever press response and so on. In this way, ultimately the rat learned the art of pressing the lever is desired by the experimenter.

For doing experiments with pigeons, Skinner made use of another specific apparatus called "pigeon's box". A pigeon in this experiment had to peck at a lighted plastic key mounted on the wall at head high and was consequently rewarded by receiving grain.

Skinner's Operant Conditioning Theory

With the help of such experiments, Skinner put forward his theory of operant conditioning for learning not only the simple responses like pressing of the lever but also for learning the most difficult and complex series of responses.

Psychologists have divided reinforcement into two forms- one in the form of Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement and the other in the form of Primary Reinforcement and Secondary Reinforcement.

Positive reinforcement is defined as that which results from the presence of a stimulus; As the hungry pigeon got food and negative reinforcement is called that which comes from the absence of any stimulus; For example, in the absence of a teacher, there is an increase in the reaction of the child who is afraid of that teacher.

Primary reinforcement refers to the reinforcement that is directly elicited by a stimulus; e.g., the reinforcement derived from hunger, thirst, sex, etc., and the secondary reinforcement refers to the reinforcement that is obtained by being constantly present with the stimulus that provided the primary reinforcement; For example, the dog's response was reinforced by continuously listening to the sound of the bell with food.

Mechanism of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning as emphasized earlier is correlated with operant behaviour. An operant is a set of acts that constitutes an organism's doing something. Hence, the process of operant conditioning may start with the responses as they occur "naturally" or "at random". In case they do not occur naturally, then attempts may be made for shaping them into existence.

Once a response (as desired by the trainer, experimenter or teacher) occurs, it is reinforced through a suitable reinforcer (Primary on Secondary, positive or negative). In due course this response gets conditioned by constantly reinforcing it. In Skinner's experiment a pallet of food worked as a positive primary reinforcer for the hungry rat. He got the reinforcement after emitting a certain response (pressing of the lever as desired by the experimenter). The Secondary reinforcement may also produce the some results as brought about by the primary reinforcement. It is a sort of neutral stimulus which acquires the reinforcing properties (rewarding value) after getting paired or associated with a primary reinforcer (e.g., food or water). The clicking of a sound and lighting of a bulb of Skinner's experiment may work as secondary reinforcement if they are paired with the appearance of a pallet of food.

Here, the organism is to respond in such a way as to produce the reinforcing stimulus. The subsequent reinforcement gradually conditions the organism to emit the desired response and thus learn the desired act.


There are situations especially in case of the acquisition of complex behaviour and learning of difficult skills, etc., where there may arise very remote chances of occurrence. In such cases waiting for an organism to behave in specific way at random (the natural occurrence) may take a life time. For example, the chances for a pigeon to dance in a specific way are extremely remote. The same holds true for a child learning Russian or even table manners. In these situations, where the desired responses do not occur at random (or naturally) efforts are made for eliciting the appropriate responses. It is done by building a chain of responses through a step by step process called "shaping."

Shaping, in this way, may be used as a successful technique for making individuals learn difficult and complex behaviour and also for introducing desirable modifications 111 the behaviour. Behaviour modification technique and aversive therapy used in treating the problem behaviour and abnormality have come into existence through the use of the shaping of behaviour mechanism.

Implications of the Theory of Operant Conditioning

Theory of operant conditioning has revolutionized the field of training or learning by bringing forward the following practical ideas and implications:

1. A response or behaviour is not necessarily dependent (contingent) upon a specific known stimuli. It is more correct to think that a behaviour or response is dependent upon its consequences. Therefore, for training an organism to learn a particular behaviour or response, he may be initiated to respond in such a way as to produce the reinforcing stimulus. His behaviour should get the reward and in turn he should again act in such a way that he is rewarded and so on. Therefore, the learning or training process and environment must be so designed as to create minimum frustration and maximum satisfaction to a learner to provide him proper reinforcement for the desired training or learning.

2. The principle of operant conditioning may be successfully applied in the task of behaviour modification. We have to find something which is rewarding for the individual whose behaviour we wish to modify, wait until the desired behaviour occurs and immediately reward him when he does. When this is done, the rate which the desired response occurs goes up. When the behaviour next occurs, it is again rewarded, and the rate of responding goes up even more. Going in the same way, we will be able to make the individual learn the desired behaviour.

3. The task of the development of human personality can be successfully manipulated through operant conditioning. According to Skinner, "We are what we have been rewarded for being. What we call personality is nothing more than consistent behaviour patterns that summarize our reinforcement history. We learn to speak English, for example, because we have, been rewarded for approximating the sounds of the English language in our early home environment. If we happened to be - brought up in a Japanese or a Russian home, we would learn to speak Japanese or Russian because when we approximately sound in that language, we would have been attended to or rewarded in some other way".

4. The theory of operant conditioning does not attribute motivation to internal processes within the organism. It takes for granted the consequences of a behaviour or response as a source of motivation to further occurrence of that behaviour. Food is reinforcing to a rat or pigeon. Knowledge of correct response is reinforcing to a learner. Secondary reinforcers also prove very important sources of motivation for a learner. Verbal praise, positive facial expressions of the trainer or teacher, feeling of success, scores, grades, prizes, medals and the opportunity to do the work of one's liking, all constitute good motivator. In this way operant conditioning provided an external approach to motivation.

5. Operant conditioning lays stress on the importance of schedules in the process of reinforcement of the behaviour. In trying to train or learn a behaviour, therefore, great care is to be taken for the proper planning of the schedules of reinforcement.

Features of Operant Conditioning Theory

  1. This theory emphasizes on operant conditioning and learning by this principle is more permanent.
  2. This principle gives importance to the result of the action more than the action.
  3. This theory emphasizes the reinforcement that comes from a positive outcome, which helps in speeding up the action of the learner.
  4. This principle lays special emphasis on success in the process of learning.
  5. This theory emphasizes practice in the process of learning.
  6. Even retarded children can be taught by active conditioning.

Drawbacks of Operant Conditioning Theory

  1. This theory has been propounded by experimenting on animals and birds, so it does not correctly explain the learning process of humans.
  2. This principle is applicable to the brainless or retarded beings and does not apply to the creatures full of intelligence, contemplation and discretion.
  3. Skinner considers reinforcement to be a power giver, whereas a person's desire to achieve the purpose in learning is the power giver.
  4. According to this theory, in the absence of reinforcement, the process of learning slows down, whereas goal attainment is necessary in human learning.
  5. According to this theory, learning is a mechanical process whereas the process of human learning requires intelligence, thinking, reasoning and reasoning.

Usefulness of Operant Conditioning Theory in Education

  1. This theory considers motivation to be necessary instead of stimulus for learning, so it is used to motivate children to read and write.
  2. This theory gives great importance to reinforcement in learning, so in teaching work, it is used by the teacher to reinforce the learners.
  3. This principle is used to keep the learners active for their success.
  4. Active conditioning is used to make desired changes in the behavior of problematic children.

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