What is Operant Conditioning?

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Father of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behaviour. It was coined by American Psychologist, B.F. Skinner who believed we should only focus on the external, observable causes of human behavior.

Skinner’s theory was heavily influenced by Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect which states that actions followed by pleasant consequences are likely to be repeated, whereas actions followed by unpleasant consequences are less likely to be repeated. Essentially, operant conditioning has a similar premise as actions followed by positive reinforcers are strengthened and will likely occur again.

Positive Reinforcement

There are four methods to modify behaviour and one of them is positive reinforcement. Positive reinforcement is adding a favourable outcome (i.e. reward) after a behaviour/action. Overall, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing an outcome/event that an individual finds rewarding.

B.F. Skinner showed how positive reinforcement works by placing a hungry rat in his “Skinner box.” The Skinner box contained a lever and as the rat moved inside the box it would accidentally knock the lever, causing a food pellet to drop into the container next to the lever. The rat quickly learned to go straight to the lever after being placed in the box a few times. The outcome of receiving food by pressing the lever ensured that the rat would repeat the action again and again.

The concept of positive reinforcement does not just start and end in a lab setting but it can occur in our daily life. For example, if your teacher praises you each time you complete your homework, you will likely repeat this behavior in the future because the outcome (i.e. receiving praise) is desirable. As a result, this strengthens the behavior of completing your homework. Eventually, you will complete your homework with the anticipation of a reward even if you do not actually receive it. This does require enough reinforcement (in the case the reinforcement is praise) for the association to occur and remain strong.


Neurofeedback uses operant conditioning principles to help change brainwave activity. During a neurofeedback session, an individual is rewarded with a visual and auditory stimulus when certain brain waves increase or decrease. The rewards act as positive reinforcement for your brain which essentially teaches you to have better control over your brainwave patterns. After a number of sessions, your brainwave activity begins to change, ultimately leading to natural improvement in your mood, sleep, and quality of life.

For instance, we may want to reward a calm, focused mental state for someone who struggles with ADHD symptoms. When that person enters this calm/focused mental state, they are rewarded with visual and audial feedback through computer software. The trainee is given instant feedback when they are no longer in the desired mental state, as the audial and visual feedback stops or is altered. Through practice, the desired mental state becomes easier to enter, maintain, and recognize.

Click here for more information on Neurofeedback.


Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual review of psychology, 54, 115–144. doi:10.1146/annurev.psych.54.101601.145124


Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller

Dr. M. Arnold Muller is a licensed School and Clinical Psychologist currently based in Toronto, Ontario, with 31 years of practice experience in two countries. Prior to his time in Canada, he spent the first half of his career in South Africa. Dr. Muller has a Ph.D. with specialization in Psychotherapy from the University of Pretoria, and a Masters Degree in Clinical Psychology. He also has a second Masters Degree in Practical Theology from the University of Stellenbosch.

Dr. Muller has worked in many settings including school boards, addiction centres, correctional institutions, the military, churches, and private practices. Spending time in these organizations has allowed him to gain an astounding amount of experience in psychological assessment, diagnosis, and treatment plan preparation and application.

Dr. Muller also has training and exposure to Neurofeedback Training, Somatic Experiencing, crisis intervention, conflict resolution and managing cultural differences. In his spare time, you can find him hiking, travelling, working on his photography, poetry, and spending time with his family and friends.

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