Updated: Jan 19, 2022
Operant conditioning, sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning, is a method of learning that employs rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence (whether negative or positive) for that behavior. For example, when lab rats press a lever when a green light is on, they receive a food pellet as a reward. When they press the lever when a red light is on, they receive a mild electric shock. As a result, they learn to press the lever when the green light is on and avoid the red light. But operant conditioning is not just something that takes place in experimental settings while training lab animals. It also plays a powerful role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and punishment take place in natural settings all the time, as well as in more structured settings such as classrooms or therapy sessions.
Conversely, actions that result in punishment or undesirable consequences will be weakened and less likely to occur again in the future. If you tell the same story again in another class but nobody laughs this time, you will be less likely to repeat the story again in the future. If you shout out an answer in class and your teacher scolds you, then you might be less likely to interrupt the class again.
Excerpt from "THEORIES BEHAVIORAL PSYCHOLOGY: What Is Operant Conditioning and How Does It Work? How Reinforcement and Punishment Modify Behavior?"
By Kendra Cherry Updated on June 03, 2020 Medically reviewed by David Susman, PhD