Classical conditioning forms associations between stimuli and involves respondent behavior, or the automatic responses to a stimulus. In operant conditioning, organisms associate their own actions with consequences. Action followed by reinforcers increase and those followed by punishers decrease. It uses operant behavior, or behavior that operates on the environment to produce rewarding or punishing stimuli.
Operant conditioning involves operant behavior that actively operates on the environment to produce stimuli. Skinner’s work elaborated a simple fact that Edward Thorndike called the law of effect: rewarded behavior is likely to recur. In his experiments involving the now famous ‘Skinner box’, Skinner used shaping, a procedure in which rewards guide an animal’s behavior toward a desired behavior. By rewarding responses that are ever closer to the final desired behavior, and ignoring all other responses, researchers can gradually shape complex behaviors.
A reinforcer is any event that increases the frequency of a preceding response. Reinforcers can be: positive, presenting a pleasant stimulus after a response; negative, reducing or removing an unpleasant stimulus; primary, innately satisfying; or secondary, learned; and immediate or delayed. When the desired response is reinforced every time it occurs, continuous reinforcement is involved. More common are partial reinforcement schedules.
Fixed-ratio schedules reinforce behavior after a set number of responses; variable-ratio schedules provide reinforcers after an unpredictable number of responses. Fixed-interval schedules feature an equal pause after each reinforcer, and variable-interval schedules reinforce the first response after varying time intervals.
Like reinforcement, punishment is most effective when strong, immediate, and consistent. However, punishment is not simply the opposite of reinforcement, due to the fact that it can have several undesirable side effects, such as increased aggression and fear of the punisher. Even when punishment suppresses unwanted behavior, it often does not guide one toward more desirable behavior. The cognitive perspective has led to an important qualification concerning the power of rewards. The over justification effect indicates that people may come to see rewards, rather than interest, as the motivation for performing a task. By undermining intrinsic interest, rewards can carry hidden costs. As with classical conditioning, an animal’s natural predispositions constrain its capacity for operant conditioning.
Skinner has been criticized for repeatedly insisting that external influences, not internal thoughts and feelings, shape behavior and for urging the use of operant principles to control people’s behavior. Critics argue that he dehumanized people by neglecting their personal freedom and by seeking to control their actions.
Operant principles have been applied in a variety of settings. For example, in schools, computer-assisted instruction embodies the operant ideal of individualized shaping and immediate reinforcement. In businesses, positive reinforcement for jobs well done has boosted employee productivity. In the home, people’s use of energy has been decreased by altering the consequences and providing feedback.