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.

Operant Conditioning.png

How could you apply this theory? (suggested strategies)

  • Strategies that provide incentives for individuals. Rewards for desirable behaviour.

  • Strategies that remove barriers to a behaviour. Removing the difficult aspects to reach desirable behaviour.

How could you apply this theory? (story)

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.

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.


• 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.

Related Concepts

Pavlovian conditioning

Reinforcement schedules