Sample Psychology Paper on Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning


B.F. Skinner was one of the pioneering behaviorist and he coined the term operant conditioning in 1937. Many refer to him as to the founder of behaviorism because of the experiment that conditioned baby Albert to be afraid of a white rat through association. The baby learnt to associate a loud noise that scared him with a white rat. Pavlov was another pioneering behaviorist whose classical conditioning theory concentrated on identifying learnt responses through association (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). Pavlov carried out a famous experiment using dogs, and he conditioned them to salivate when certain stimulus was presented. Albert Bandura’s operant conditioning theory is based on social learning; the theory that emphasizes on the role the observations plays in learning behavior (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). This paper demonstrates that different types of operant conditioning are effective in shaping one’s behavior by using learning in a classroom as an example.

Reinforcement vs. Punishment

            Reinforcement is a term that refers to actions that increase the likelihood of desired behavior reoccurring in the future by adding or removing the stimuli that is associated with the behavior. For instance, positive reinforcement in the form of rewards or praises increases the likelihood of a specific behavior reoccurring because of the desirable feeling the reward or praise brings (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). In a classroom setting, for instance, teachers usually apply the strategy of positive reinforcement to reward certain behavior. Positive reinforcement at school is employed through assessment, quizzes and praises. Students will receive a positive reward (such as good marks, for instance) only if they engage in positive behavior, which is studying the course material (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). For example, a student who receives an A+ in examination is more likely to study in the future in order to receive the highest grades on a permanent basis.

On the contrary, negative reinforcement refers to the elimination of a stimulus with regard to increasing the likelihood of a specific behavior occurring in the future. In the classroom, negative reinforcement can also play a positive role in achieving a desired behavior. For example, a student who fears failing in examination will study more in order to avoid the bad grade.

In operant conditioning, the opposite of reinforcement is punishment. Punishment is used in lowering the chances of a certain behavior occurring. When positive punishment is used, a stimulus that causes discomfort is introduced to weaken or do away with the unwanted behavior (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). For example, receiving an F in exams is a positive punishment and a response to the unwanted behavior, such as poor studying. Students who want to eliminate the negative stimuli, such as grade F, for instance, will develop good studying habits. On the other hand, negative punishment eliminates a desirable stimulus in order to reduce a certain behavior (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). For example, teachers could prevent students who do not study from taking part in sports. As a result, students who are afraid of losing their eligibility to take part in sports will change their studying behavior.

Operant Conditioning and Learning

            Operant conditioning is not based on the concept that a stimulus is needed in order to link an unconditioned response to a newly conditioned one. In operant conditioning, after a certain behavior is observed, the actor is either punished or rewarded for it. This theory of behavior accords students a higher position by assuming that they possess inborn behaviors that need molding through conditioning (Lineros & Hinojosa, 2012). B. F. Skinner believed that all types of behavior an individual engages in are caused by punishment and rewards present in the environment. Within the framework of the operant conditioning a stimulus is not administered to elicit a newly conditioned response. This enables effective manipulation of behavior (Lineros & Hinojosa, 2012). According to this approach, reward or punishment is only used after a specific behavior has been observed.

A teacher who awards higher grades for good writing and lower grades for bad quality is manipulating students’ behavior by using operant conditioning. Teachers sometimes engage in behaviors that condition students in a certain way without their knowledge. Proponents of operant conditioning believe that learning is more effective in the environment where reward and punishment are actively used (Lineros & Hinojosa, 2012). It has been noted that when teachers concentrate on one side of the class, they act as positive reinforcement that attracts students towards that side of the class (Lineros & Hinojosa, 2012). At times, however, such approach can undermine the respect to a diversity principle, for instance, when teachers reward students who hold a definite kind of beliefs only.

The Best Way to Shape Ones Behavior through Operant Conditioning

            The best way to shape one’s behavior through operant conditioning is by using punishment and reward. Rewarding people for engaging in positive behavior is the best way of encouraging them to repeat the same behavior in the future. This approach does not use force to mold behavior. This means that when people show positive behavior after conditioning, their internal state changes. Punishing people after their engagement  in undesired behavior is the best way of preventing unwanted behavior from occurring in the future. The punishment used in operant conditioning does not involve coercion, but employs the introduction or elimination of certain stimuli to cause discomfort that discourages the actor from engaging in unwanted behavior.

Using coercive methods to mold behavior have been proven ineffective because they do not change the internal state of an individual. Instead, coercive punishment suppresses unwanted behavior as opposed to rectifying it. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, makes an individual learn to associate good behavior with certain rewards and bad behavior – with punishment. Operant conditioning is the best non-coercive way of shaping behavior, but some challenges can emerge while using the approach. One of the shortcomings of the approach is the tendency to label all behavior as good or bad, leaving little room for behavior that falls in between (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003). A second disadvantage of operant conditioning is that it fails to consider the roles of inheritance and cognition in shaping behavior.


            A review of literature provides evidence that the use of different types of operant conditioning is effective in shaping one’s behavior. Proponents of operant conditioning believe that people inherently possess behavior patterns that need to be molded through operant conditioning. This is why behaviorists only intervene after an individual has shown a desired or undesired behavior. Desired behavior is encouraged through rewards, while unwanted behavior is discouraged or eliminated through punishment. This makes operant conditioning effective in shaping behavior because it relies on observable characteristics. Nevertheless, operant conditioning has some shortcomings. One of the shortcomings is the tendency of the approach to label behavior as either bad or good, which makes it difficult to categorize behavior that falls in between. A second disadvantage of operant conditioning is the failure to consider the roles played by cognition and inheritance in shaping behavior.



Lineros, J. V., & Hinojosa, M. (2012). Theories of learning and student development. National Forum of Teacher Education Journal, 22(3), 1-5.

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Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. ( 2003). Operant Conditioning. Annual Review Psychology; 54 , 115–144. Retrived from