Operant conditioning was a term used by Burrhus Frederic Skinner to describe the effects positive and negative consequences of a behavior have on the future occurrence of that behavior (Levine, 1999). Skinner believed that all behaviors are the result of reinforcement. Operant conditioning functions under the idea that for each action there is a reaction, those reactions are the reinforcements that increase or decrease behavior. There are four types of operant conditioning, positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, punishment, and extinction. Using and understanding these makes it possible to control behaviors, to increase a desired behavior or decrease an undesired one.
Positive and negative reinforcements both work to increase the occurrence of a certain behavior but in different ways. Positive reinforcement works to increase a behavior by a positive consequence, for example a child is given a piece of candy for being quiet. This candy acts as a positive stimulus, reinforcing the behavior. According to Olson and Hergenhahn (2009), “A positive reinforcer, is something that, when added to the situation by a certain response, increases the probability of that response’s recurrence” (p. 88). In the example the child is given something they enjoy for showing the desired behavior, which teaches him that if he exhibits that behavior there will be a reward.
Negative reinforcement increases a desired behavior by introducing the means to stop a negative consequence, for example the same child has his hair pulled every time he speaks, to stop this he must be quiet, which reinforces the desired behavior and makes it more likely to occur in the future. According to Olson and Hergenhahn (2009),” A negative reinforcer, is something that, when removed from the situation by a certain response, increases the probability of that response’s recurrence” (p. 88). In the example the child feels pain until the desired behavior is exhibited, reinforcing the idea that being quiet will not result in pain.
It is hard to decide which form of reinforcement is more effective; I truly believe that both have their place. For example if is usually more effective to reward a child for doing well in school then to ground them until they do. But at the same time giving a child a reward for staying away from the stove is not as effective as letting them touch it once to teach them to stay away from it. I think that to pick one limits how effective one can be in changing the behaviors they need to, because each person is different how they react to reinforcement also differs. One person may respond well to positive reinforcement increasing the desired behavior, another may not that the behavior stays the same until negative reinforcement is used.
One scenario where I have used operant conditioning is with my child’s schooling. Her school sends home progress reports every two weeks. Last year they were very poor and we made the choice to ground her and take away privileges until her behavior toward school changed. The negative reinforcement of not being able to see her friends or leave her room should have made her work harder in school based on the theory of operant conditioning. However the behavior we desired decreased, the only thing that increased was fights at home and her resentment.
This year we decided to try positive reinforcement on a continuous reinforcement schedule. Every day one dollar is set aside in a jar that she can see into, this continuously reinforces the behavior in school by acting as a reminder that if the progress report is good she gets to have the money within the jar. We have seen a vast improvement in grades and behavior in school, she focuses on her homework, and the fights have decreased. This shows that positive reinforcement works to increase a desired behavior where negative reinforcement failed.
Operant conditioning is a valid form of learning, most if not all behaviors are reinforced in some way. I cannot say which type of reinforcement is more effective as each has a place where it is more, but overall it is a working method of changing behaviors.
Levine, A. (1999). Maricopa center for learning & instruction. Retrieved from http://www.mcli.dist.maricopa.edu/proj/nru/nr.html Olson, M. H., & Hergenhahn, B.R. (2009). An Introduction to Theories of Learning (8th Ed.). Retrieved from The University of Phoenix eBook Collection database.