A Business Encyclopedia

Operant Conditioning

Definition: The Operant Conditioning theory states that people are likely to emit responses that are rewarded and will not emit any responses that are neither followed by any reward nor punishment. Thus, an individual tries to establish an association between a particular behavior and consequence.

The Operant Conditioning Theory is given by B.F. Skinner, who believed that behavior is voluntary and is determined, maintained and controlled by its consequences. According to him, one must focus on the external or observable causes of behavior rather than the internal mental events such as motivation, thoughts, feelings, etc.

B.F. Skinner performed an experiment; wherein the Rat was placed in a glass box, called as a “skinner box.” In that box, there were two levers, one attached to the feeding tube, while the other produced the electric shock. The rat pressed the first lever attached to the tube and got the food to eat, but as soon as it pressed the other lever, it got the shock. A rat discovered from its actions, the lever which is rewarding and the one which gives a shock (negative response) and pressed only that lever which resulted in food. Thus, Skinner observed, that the rate of response, as well as the change in the response, was seen after the behavior was performed, not before.

Often, the operant conditioning is also called as an Instrumental Conditioning, which means learning is developed through the rewards and punishments given for a particular behavior. There are three elements that result in the development of a new behavior; these are:

  1. Stimulus Situation (the event or object)
  2. Behavioral Response to the situation
  3. Consequence of a response

Example: A vehicle driver applies the brakes in order to avoid the accident, thus, the possibility of an accident without the application of the brakes is stimulus situation. The application of brake is the behavior and escape from the accident is the consequence of behavior.

Thus, through this process, an organism learns to distinguish between the behaviors that are rewarding and try to engage them in those behaviors.

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