Elements of operant conditioning

Operant conditioning is based on the principles of reinforcement and punishment. It is important to make the distinction between the two:

  • Reinforcement is any consequence that strengthens the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated
  • Punishment is any consequence that weakens the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated

Positive reinforcement

Positive reinforcement refers to a reward which strengthens the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated by providing a pleasant or satisfying consequence. For example, receiving a good grade (a pleasant consequence) after studying hard for a test (a behaviour) is likely to result in that behaviour being repeated for the next test.

Negative reinforcement

It should be noted that negative reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of a response being repeated (remember the distinction between reinforcement and punishment). Negative reinforcement refers to a reward which strengthens the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated by removing an unpleasant or dissatisfying consequence. For example, the removal of a bad headache (a pleasant consequence) after using a particular type of medication (a behaviour) is likely to result in that behaviour being repeated the next time that individual has a headache.

Punishment

Also positive punishment. Punishment refers to the provision of an unpleasant or dissatisfying consequence which weakens the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated. For example, having to pick up fifty pieces of rubbish (an unpleasant consequence) after littering (a behaviour) is likely to result in that behaviour not being repeated the next time that individual thinks about littering.

Response cost

Also negative punishment. Response cost refers to the removal of a pleasant or satisfying consequence which weakens the likelihood of a behaviour being repeated. For example, an individual having their licence revoked (an unpleasant consequence) after speeding (a behaviour) is likely to result in that behaviour not being repeated the next that individual drives their car.