Everyday Examples of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is different to classical conditioning as described by Pavlov in that a desirable behaviour is reinforced and an undesirable behaviour, punished.  It is a highly specialised form of learning known as instrumental learning and is used in many contexts including good parenting and even training animals.   While the technique of operant conditioning is often attributed to B.F.Skinner, he developed his work from original studies by Jerzy Kornosky and Edward Thorndike.

Thorndike studied many animals including cats which he locked in puzzle boxes.  On the first attempt it took them a good while to work out how to escape. As the number of times they were placed in the same box was increased, the time taken to get out shortened.  The cat made fewer mistakes and escaped the negative situation of the box quicker.   Thorndike suggested that behaviours which resulted in pleasant consequences were repeated and those which did not became extinguished.


B.F.Skinner developed a device which has become known as “The Skinner Box”  The box contained clear glass sides for observation; switches to be depressed by the subject animal; a floor which was capable of delivering small electric shocks; a light which flashed and a chute which when the switch was pressed when the light was on would deliver food. Animals from rats to pigeons quickly learned to associate their random pressing of the switch with either pleasant reinforces (food) or painful punishments (shocks) depending whether the light was lit when they pressed.  This approach led to the ABC model of behaviour management.

The ABC Model of Behaviour Management

The model is so simple, yet it at the heart of managing challenging behaviour.  It involves the application operant conditioning which is there to re-enforce desirable behaviours. The ABC model is used in schools or in institutions caring for people with learning difficulties.  Using the model leads to the development of a behaviour plan where desirable and undesirable behaviours are consistently targeted to change behaviour.   The ABC stands for:

  • Antecedents
  • Behaviours
  • Consequences

Antecedents are what happened before the undesirable behaviour and which may have triggered it. They may include:

  • The actions of others : being told off, bullying or even overstimulation in the environment
  • The physical state of the person: hungry, tired, medicated (or not)
  • The emotional state: anxious, excitable, depressed
  • The social context: who else was there
  • The environment: hot, noisy, too many people, bright lights etc…

Finding out which factors are significant and reducing them is important.

The behaviours need to be examined. What does it look and sound like?  For example a child who believes he can get what he wants by throwing a tantrum in a shop may throw himself to the ground, cream, kick and may even hold his breath until he nearly loses consciousness. In such situations the consequences may have to include ignoring it otherwise attention might re-enforce.

The consequences: What can you do to re-enforce the desirable behaviour? This may involve both negative and positive re-enforcement.  The child throwing the tantrum needs to be ignored (negative) but as soon as he behaves appropriately he should be rewarded but not with the thing which caused the tantrum in the first place…  This is called catching them being good.  In young children or those with impaired learning, the rewards need to be closely associated with the action.

Sally, a behaviour support teacher I know worked with a primary school where a particular boy was causing chaos every day.  At the end of playtime he would not come in but chose to sit on the concrete and refuse to move. Several days running the head teacher had been called to physically lift the child into school. The antecedents were probably a desire for attention, the behaviour was clear but he was being rewarded for his “bad” behaviour by attention from the male head.  Sally suggested a change in the way the behaviour was rewarded. At the end of playtime the boy sat down as usual and refused to move.  The other children were escorted in. He was left alone in the playground and a teacher assistant watched discretely from a window.  The boy quickly noticed that he was alone and no one was coming. A few minutes later he came into school and quietly sat down at his desk and that particular behaviour was never repeated again.

Toilet Training, Washing Hands, Dry Nights, Sharing Toys and Teeth Brushing

Learning the skills of everyday life can be hard, but they can be helped with application of a little operant conditioning.  Young children love stickers the brighter and shinier they are the better.   This application of operant conditioning with stickers and charts can be used to tackle everything from personal hygiene to playing nicely with siblings – but not all at the same time!  Here’s how it works:

  • Decide on a single behaviour that needs to change. Depending on the age/ development of the child this is ideally something negotiated between you.
  • Make or buy a star chart and some stickers of stars
  • Put it in a prominent position
  • EVERY TIME you notice them doing the right thing reward the behaviour with a sticker as quickly as possible to the event. It is important to be utterly consistent otherwise it will have no value to the child.
  • Where possible, tactically ignore the less desirable behaviour you are trying to extinguish.

In no time at all the desirable behaviour will become the easier one and you can move on to the next behaviour.  If the child is older and stickers don’t work then small and proportionate sums of cash can be offered.

Are you already an expert in operant conditioning?

If you have done any of the following things it is likely that you have used operant conditioning or had it used on you:

  • Attended a slimming club or fitness club and earned “rewards” for losing weight/ fitness
  • Own a club card where you collect points for gifts or prizes
  • Trained your dog to offer a paw for a treat
  • Fasted or given up foods for Lent or other religious festival

See, you were an expert and you may not have even known it!

About Alexander Burgemeester

One Response to “Everyday Examples of Operant Conditioning”

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  1. Martin says:

    How does latent learning differ from conditioning?

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