Reinforcement (Operant Conditioning)


What is it?

Operant conditioning is the dominating theory on the contingencies between stimuli, behaviour, and consequences. It dictates that stimuli (or a group of antecedent conditions) cues individuals to perform a specific behaviour, which is then followed by a consequence that either increases or decreases the likelihood of performing that response again when presented with similar stimuli.

The theory states that a behaviour that is followed by a pleasant consequence is likely to be repeated (reinforcement) whereas a behaviour that is followed by an unpleasant consequence is likely to not be repeated (punishment) (Skinner, 1963).

The current focus here is reinforcement. This is the process where consequences are used to increase a desired behaviour. These consequences can be either ‘positive’ (where a pleasant consequence is added) or ‘negative’ (where a negative consequence is removed).

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves providing a reward of some kind when the behaviour we are wanting to see happens.

Example: Giving a dog a treat when it sits to the verbal command of ‘sit’ Desired Behaviour: the dog sits when a person says ‘sit’.
Positive Reinforcer: the treat.

Negative reinforcement

Negative reinforcement involves removing something unpleasant when the behaviour we are wanting to see happens.

Example: Pushing on the hindquarters of a dog (unpleasant), until the dog sits to the verbal command of ‘sit’
Desired Behaviour: the dog sits when a person says ‘sit’.
Negative Reinforcer: Pushing on the hindquarters.

Why is it important for behaviour change?

The application of operant conditioning principles underlies all of psychological practice. When designing strategies it is indispensible to understand positive reinforcements (aka incentives/motivators) and negative reinforcements (aka disincentives/barriers). Further, it is key to understand the schedules and intensity of reinforcement to either progress or halt a change.

How could you apply this theory?

  • Strategies that provide incentives for individuals. Rewards for desirable behaviour, such as verbal praise, monetary rewards, fringe benefits.

  • Strategies that remove barriers to a behaviour. Removing the difficult aspects to reach desirable behaviour, such as the wide spread availability of go cards at convenience stores and newsagencies.


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Example of theory applied

  • Every I visit my favourite coffee shop in the morning they remember my name, smile at me, and ask me how I’m doing. Despite it being out of the way and more expensive I continue to return every morning.

  • A school teacher in a low socioeconomic area is having trouble with students not bringing writing materials such as a pen to class. Here the behaviour that the teacher wants to increase is bringing a pen to class.

    The teacher has a choice: Punish the student for forgetting the pen with a lunchtime detention or reward them simply by commenting and thanking them for being prepared for class. Using positive reinforcement rather than punishment, will likely see the desired behaviour increase while also helping to build rapport and trust from the student.


  • Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement.

  • Mazur, J. E. (1986). Learning and behavior. Englewood Cliffs, N.J: Prentice-Hall.

  • Skinner, B. F. (1938). The behavior of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

  • Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behavior.

  • Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American psychologist, 18(8), 503.

Related Concepts

Pavlovian conditioning

Reinforcement schedules