B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning: Understanding Types and Experimental Insights

Skinner’s Operant conditioning, developed by renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner, is a learning theory that focuses on the consequences of behavior to shape and modify it. Skinner’s work delves into the principles of reinforcement and punishment, emphasizing how they influence the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.

Burrhus Frederic Skinner (March 20, 1904 – August 18, 1990) was an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher.

Skinner saw human action as dependent on consequences of previous actions, a theory he would articulate as the principle of reinforcement: If the consequences to an action are bad, there is a high chance the action will not be repeated; if the consequences are good, the probability of the action being repeated becomes stronger

Operant Conditioning Basics:

1. Operant Behavior:

  • Definition: In operant conditioning, behavior is considered as an operant, meaning it operates on the environment to produce consequences.
  • Example: Pressing a lever (behavior) to receive food (consequence).

2. Reinforcement:

  • Definition: Reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.
  • Types: Positive reinforcement (adding a desirable stimulus) and negative reinforcement (removing an aversive stimulus).

3. Punishment:

  • Definition: Punishment weakens the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.
  • Types: Positive punishment (adding an aversive stimulus) and negative punishment (removing a desirable stimulus).

Types of Operant Conditioning:

1. Positive Reinforcement:

  • Example: Giving a child a piece of candy for completing homework, increasing the likelihood of homework completion.

2. Negative Reinforcement:

  • Example: Allowing a student to skip a challenging task after completing an assignment, strengthening the likelihood of assignment completion.

3. Positive Punishment:

  • Example: Adding extra chores for misbehavior, decreasing the likelihood of the undesirable behavior.

4. Negative Punishment:

  • Example: Revoking TV privileges for a child’s disobedience, reducing the likelihood of disobedience.

Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Experiment:

Skinner’s Box (Operant Conditioning Chamber):

  • Purpose: Skinner designed an experimental chamber to investigate operant conditioning principles on animal behavior, primarily with rats and pigeons.
  • Setup: The box contained a lever or a key that the animal could manipulate to receive food (positive reinforcement) or avoid electric shocks (negative reinforcement).

Key Components:

  1. Response Mechanism: Animals learned to perform specific actions (lever pressing or key pecking) to obtain rewards or avoid punishments.
  2. Reinforcement Schedule: Skinner explored different schedules, such as continuous reinforcement (reinforcement after every response) and intermittent reinforcement (reinforcement after some responses).


Skinner created his operant conditioning chamber  or we also call it Skinner box.

The box is a chamber that includes at least one lever, bar, or key that the animal can manipulate.

As the first step to his experiment, he placed a hungry rat inside the Skinner box.

Rat accidentally presses a liver by which food is released.

Eventually, the rat discovered that upon pressing a liver food was released inside the box.

Here, the action of pressing the lever is an operant response/behavior, and the food released inside the chamber is the reward (positive reinforcement).

In another experiment he makes the floor of the chamber electrified.

The rat having experienced the discomfort started to desperately move around the box and accidentally knocked the lever.

Pressing of the lever immediately seized the flow of unpleasant current.

After a few times, the rat had smartened enough to go directly to the lever in order to prevent itself from the discomfort.

The electric current reacted as the negative reinforcement, and the consequence of escaping the electric current made sure that the rat repeated the action again and again.

The electric current reacted as the negative reinforcement, and the consequence of escaping the electric current made sure that the rat repeated the action again and again.


  • Skinner observed that behaviors reinforced intermittently were more resistant to extinction, meaning they persisted longer when the reinforcement was discontinued.
  • His research contributed to the understanding of how schedules of reinforcement impact the acquisition and maintenance of behaviors.


  • Skinner’s operant conditioning principles have been applied in various fields, including education, parenting, and animal training.
  • The concept of shaping behavior through reinforcement and punishment has influenced behavior modification strategies.

B.F. Skinner’s operant conditioning remains a foundational theory in psychology, shedding light on how consequences shape behavior. By exploring the types of operant conditioning and Skinner’s influential experiments, we gain valuable insights into the principles that govern learning and behavior.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *