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Operant Conditioning: 65 Examples

Operant conditioning is a type of learning in which behaviors are strengthened or weakened by their consequences, called reinforcement or punishment. Operant conditioning works by applying a consequence, that is a reward or punishment, after a behavior.

There are 65 examples of operant conditioning behavior in everyday life, classroom, parenting, child development, animals, therapy, education, relationships, ABA, work, and classic experiments.

The difference between classical and operant conditioning and common misconceptions will be discussed. Other components and concepts of operant conditioning include schedules of reinforcement, extinction, extinction burst, spontaneous recovery, and resistance to extinction.

A woman bending down to feed her dog a treat. operant conditioning example

What is operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning, or instrumental conditioning, is a type of associative learning in which behaviors are strengthened or weakened by their consequences, called reinforcement or punishment. When a behavior is paired with a consequence repeatedly, an association is formed to create new behavior.

Psychologist B.F. Skinner, the father of operant conditioning, proposed the reinforcement theory, stating that behavior could be shaped through stimuli contingencies or reinforcements.

How does operant conditioning work?

Operant conditioning works by applying a consequence, which is a reward or punishment, after a behavior. Reward, also known as reinforcement, strengthens a behavior by increasing the likelihood that a behavior will repeat in the future. Punishment weakens a behavior by decreasing the likelihood it will repeat.

What are examples of operant conditioning?

Examples of operant conditioning behavior are in everyday life, classroom, parenting, child development, at home, animals, therapy, education, relationships, ABA, work, fear conditioning, and experiments.

What are operant conditioning examples in everyday life?

  1. Receiving “Likes” for posting intriguing images on social media motivates people to post more.
  2. Getting a ticket for speeding discourages driving above the speed limit.
  3. Earning a discount coupon for recycling regularly encourages more recycling.
  4. Earning a free coffee after purchasing ten drinks motivates continued patronage of the café.
  5. Incurring a fine for littering discourages careless disposal of trash in public areas.
  6. Gaining compliments for dressing stylishly encourages maintaining a fashionable wardrobe.

What are operant conditioning examples in the classroom?

  1. Earning a sticker for every book read motivates a student to read more.
  2. Forfeiting recess time due to disruptive behavior discourages such actions in the classroom setting.
  3. Getting a lower grade for submitting homework late discourages procrastination and encourages timely submission.
  4. Being chosen as class leader for consistently good work motivates continued diligence and responsibility.
  5. Granting a class party for achieving a collective goal motivates teamwork and collective effort among students.
  6. Awarding a certificate for perfect attendance encourages consistent school attendance and punctuality.

What are operant conditioning examples in parenting?

  1. Offering praise for sharing toys encourages generosity and social skills among children.
  2. Losing television time for fighting with siblings decreases the occurrence of fights.
  3. Praising a child for tidying their room increases the likelihood they’ll do it again.
  4. Canceling a playdate for lying discourages dishonesty and promotes truthfulness.
  5. Providing a movie night as a reward for completing chores encourages diligence and responsibility in household tasks.
  6. Rewarding a month of good behavior with a special outing like a zoo trip encourages sustained positive conduct.

What are operant conditioning examples in child development?

  1. Commending a child for correctly identifying colors fosters learning and color recognition.
  2. Disregarding a child’s attention-seeking screams reduces the frequency of such behavior.
  3. Cheering for a child’s first steps encourages walking and physical development.
  4. Awarding a sticker to toddlers for using the potty encourages the development of consistent potty habits.
  5. Not reacting to a child’s whining for sweets discourages this form of persuasion.
  6. Providing verbal praise for using “please” and “thank you” promotes polite manners.

What are examples of operant conditioning at home?

  1. Receiving compliments on a well-kept garden encourages continued gardening efforts.
  2. Receiving praise for consistently watering plants encourages regular plant care.
  3. Suffering from a cluttered and disorganized kitchen due to neglecting regular cleaning discourages disorganization.
  4. Facing an uncomfortable living environment due to not fixing minor household repairs discourages procrastination.
  5. Enjoying the benefits of a well-stocked pantry and fridge for adhering to a grocery budget encourages fiscal responsibility.
  6. Thanking a neighbor for collecting mail during a vacation encourages and reinforces neighborly cooperation and kindness.

What are operant conditioning examples in animals?

  1. A dog getting a treat for sitting on command strengthens the obedience training.
  2. Giving a parrot its favorite fruit for mimicking words encourages vocal mimicry.
  3. Overlooking a dog’s attention-seeking barking reduces the frequency of such behavior.
  4. Using a stern voice to reprimand a dog for jumping on guests discourages inappropriate greeting behavior.
  5. Providing a dog with a favorite toy for not barking at the mail carrier discourages nuisance barking.
  6. Using a clicker and verbal praise to train a parrot for stepping onto a hand without nipping reinforces gentle interaction.

What are operant conditioning examples in therapy?

  1. Praising positive self-talk in cognitive-behavioral therapy enhances healthy coping strategies.
  2. Recognizing positive progress in phobia therapy boosts confidence in using healthy coping strategies.
  3. Facilitating social interaction in group therapy improves confidence in social settings.
  4. Acknowledging the reduction of negative thought patterns in therapy sessions encourages cognitive restructuring.
  5. Providing positive feedback for expressing feelings in therapy supports emotional openness.
  6. Praising brave behavior when encountering a scary situation reinforces courage.

What are operant conditioning examples in education?

  1. Presenting certificates for high exam scores incentivizes academic excellence.
  2. Providing constructive feedback on wrong answers enhances learning and understanding.
  3. Establishing a student-led research grant for innovative project proposals fosters a culture of inquiry and exploration beyond the classroom.
  4. Introducing a ‘Tech Innovator’ award for students who develop novel solutions or apps, encouraging technological creativity and entrepreneurship.
  5. Launching a student ambassador program for those excelling in leading extracurricular activities to promote leadership.
  6. Establishing a student-led research grant for innovative project proposals to foster intellectual curiosity.

What are operant conditioning examples in relationships?

  1. Expressing appreciation when a partner does household chores boosts helpful behaviors.
  2. Resolving conflicts with positive communication reinforces healthy relationship habits.
  3. Complimenting a partner for supportive behavior increases thoughtfulness.
  4. Withdrawing from arguments lessens hostile interactions.
  5. Giving a cold response to hurtful remarks discourages insensitivity.
  6. Sharing enjoyable activities rewards mutual support.

What are operant conditioning examples in ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis)?

  1. Providing praise and high-fives when a child completes a task boosts future cooperation.
  2. Letting a student take a break after finishing an assignment reinforces staying on-task.
  3. Maintaining predictable daily routines and structure reduces surprises and chaotic responses.
  4. Gradually lengthening the time a child must wait for a reward shapes patience.
  5. Reinforcing successive steps towards complex social skills shapes interactions.
  6. Using a token system where points are exchanged for rewards teaches new skills.

What are operant conditioning examples at work?

  1. Receiving a bonus at work for meeting sales targets reinforces diligent sales efforts.
  2. The chef getting praise for preparing a delicious meal encourages continued culinary efforts and experimentation.
  3. Awarding “Employee of the Month” for outstanding performance motivates excellence.
  4. After a day of hard work, enjoying a relaxing bath rewards and motivates continued effort.
  5. Offering a flexible work-from-home day as a reward for consistently meeting project deadlines motivates timely task completion.
  6. Issuing warnings for repeated tardiness reduces lateness.

What are the types of operant conditioning?

There are four types of operant conditioning.

  1. Positive reinforcement
  2. Negative reinforcement
  3. Positive punishment
  4. Negative punishment.

What is the difference between reinforcement and punishment?

The main difference between reinforcement and punishment is their goals. Reinforcement aims to increase a desired behavior, while punishment aims to decrease an undesired behavior.

Positive denotes adding a stimulus as a consequence, while negative denotes removing a stimulus as a consequence.

What is positive reinforcement?

Positive reinforcement adds a rewarding stimulus as a positive reinforcer to strengthen a desired behavior.

A positive reinforcement example is a parent giving their child an extra allowance for completing chores. In this example, extra allowance (positive reinforcer) is added (positive) to encourage (reinforcement) completing chores (desired behavior).

What is negative reinforcement?

Negative reinforcement removes an unpleasant stimulus to strengthen a desired behavior.

A negative reinforcement example is that a child doesn’t have to clean the table after the meal if they eat vegetables. Here, clearing the table is an averse stimulus that is removed (negative) to encourage (reinforcement) vegetable eating (desired behavior).

What is positive punishment?

Positive punishment adds an unpleasant stimulus to weaken or eliminate an undesired behavior.

A positive punishment example is when a teacher gives a student extra homework for making noise in class. In this example, extra homework is an averse stimulus that is added (positive) to discourage (punishment) students from making noise in class (undesirable behavior).

What is negative punishment?

Negative punishment removes a pleasant stimulus to stop undesired behavior.

A negative punishment example is when the police revoke the driver’s driving license (pleasant stimulus) to discourage (punishment) reckless driving (unwanted behavior.)

What are famous operant conditioning experiments?

Here are 5 famous operant conditioning experiments.​1–5​

  1. B.F. Skinner’s “Skinner Box” (1900s): B. F. Skinner conducted a series of operant conditioning experiments at Harvard University in the 1900s. He designed a special chamber, now known as the “Skinner box,” to study operant conditioning in animals, primarily rats and pigeons. The box contained a lever or key that the animal could manipulate to obtain food or water as a reward. Skinner observed how the animals learned to associate pressing the lever with receiving a reward and how they reacted to different reinforcement schedules, demonstrating the principles of reinforcement.
  2. Thorndike’s “puzzle box” (1898): Before Skinner, Edward Thorndike conducted experiments using a puzzle box to study the law of effect. Hungry cats were placed in a box that could be opened by pulling a lever or stepping on a platform. Initially, the cats tried various actions to escape, but over time, they learned the specific action needed to get the reward of food. This experiment demonstrated the principle of trial-and-error learning and the law of effect, laying the groundwork for Skinner’s work on operant conditioning.
  3. Skinner’s “superstitious pigeons” (1948): Another experiment by Skinner involved feeding pigeons at random intervals regardless of their behavior. In a 1948 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology, Skinner described how the pigeons developed superstitious behaviors, performing unnecessary actions associated with food arrival. This experiment illustrated how superstitions could form due to the coincidental timing of rewards.
  4. Skinner’s Project Pigeon “pigeon-guided missiles” (World War II): During World War II, Skinner embarked on a secret project to train pigeons to guide missiles. The pigeons were conditioned to peck at a target, and their pecking would control the missile’s path. Although never used in combat, this experiment demonstrated the potential for applying operant conditioning principles to real-world problems.
  5. Montrose M. Wolf’s “token economy” (1960s): Wolf’s token economy experiment, conducted in a psychiatric hospital, utilized a system where patients earned tokens for desirable behaviors like maintaining personal hygiene and participating in activities. These tokens, which held no intrinsic value, could be exchanged for rewards such as special privileges or items. Implementing this system significantly improved patient behavior, demonstrating the practical application of operant conditioning principles. The experiment is an important example in Applied Behavior Analysis, showing how well operant conditioning can be applied in real-life situations.

What is the law of effect?

The law of effect was a theory proposed by Edward Thorndike after observing the puzzle box experiment before Skinner discovered operant conditioning. 

The law of effect states that if, in the presence of a stimulus, a response was followed by a satisfying event (reinforcer), the bond between stimulus and response was strengthened. Conversely, if a response-stimulus event was followed by an unsatisfying event (punisher), the bond was weakened.

What is the difference between classical and operant conditioning?

What distinguishes classical conditioning from operant conditioning? Classical conditioning is a form of associative learning where a neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus through consistent pairing with an unconditioned stimulus. This process establishes an association, allowing the initially neutral stimulus to evoke a conditioned response similar to the unconditioned stimulus. 

Both classical and operant conditioning involve associative learning. However, the key difference between classical and operant conditiong is that classical conditioning associates two stimuli to elicit an automatic, involuntary response, while operant conditioning uses consequences to modify a voluntary action.

How is OCD linked to operant conditioning?

The symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are believed to be linked to operant conditioning through negative reinforcement of compulsions. 

People with OCD may experience intrusive, anxiety-provoking thoughts, which lead to an obsession. According to Mowrer’s two-factor theory, the obsession could also be due to neutral stimuli becoming associated with anxiety through classical conditioning.

Negative reinforcement occurs when engaging in repetitive behavior or compulsions temporarily relieves this anxiety. This teaches the brain that the compulsion “works” to reduce distress, making it more likely to repeat in the future.

What are some common misconceptions about operant conditioning?

Several common misconceptions about operant conditioning often arise due to oversimplification or misunderstanding of its principles.

  1. Negative reinforcement is the same as punishment: This is a common misunderstanding. Negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unpleasant stimulus to increase a behavior, whereas punishment aims to decrease a behavior, either by introducing an unpleasant stimulus (positive punishment) or removing a pleasant one (negative punishment).
  2. Positive reinforcement or rewards always work: Although reinforcement aims to enhance behavior, its success isn’t guaranteed. The effectiveness of rewards is influenced by several factors, including the timing of the reinforcement, its nature, the specific needs and preferences of the learner, and the surrounding environment. For example, repetitively using the same reward or adding an element that removes an individual’s freedom might reduce motivation.
  3. Punishment always works: While people often react to positive and negative forms of punishment, there’s no certainty that unwanted behaviors will be eliminated permanently. For instance, children frequently punished by their parents might eventually become desensitized to the punishment and no longer change their behavior in response to it.
  4. Immediate reinforcement is necessary for learning: While immediate reinforcement can be more effective, especially in the early stages of learning, behaviors can still be learned with delayed reinforcement, though this may take longer and be less efficient.
  5. Reinforcement is always better than punishment in disciplining children:  Reinforcement encourages the repetition of desirable behaviors, while punishment discourages the occurrence of undesirable behavior. Using reinforcement to discourage an undesired behavior will likely not work. Therefore, the two conditioning types have no inherent good or bad. The good or bad depends on the exact steps used and the context.

What are the types of reinforcement schedules in operant conditioning?

In operant conditioning, schedules of reinforcement are the rules or plans for delivering reinforcement. These schedules can significantly impact the strength and rate of the learned behavior.

Here are the types of reinforcement schedules.

  • Continuous Reinforcement: The behavior is reinforced every time it occurs. This schedule is often used during the initial stages of learning to establish a behavior.
  • Partial (Intermittent) Reinforcement: The behavior is not consistently reinforced. This type of reinforcement is more resistant to extinction than continuous reinforcement. There are four main types of partial reinforcement schedules are the following.
    1. Fixed-Interval Schedule: Reinforcement is provided for the first response after a specific period has passed. For example, receiving a paycheck every two weeks.
    2. Variable-Interval Schedule: Reinforcement is given for the first response after varying time intervals. This schedule produces a slow, steady rate of response. For example, checking for a message on a smartphone; the message can come at any time, but the person keeps checking.
    3. Fixed-Ratio Schedule: Reinforcement is provided after a specific number of responses. For example, a reward is given after every fifth response.
    4. Variable-Ratio Schedule: Reinforcement is provided after an unpredictable number of responses. This schedule is very resistant to extinction. For example, in gambling or fishing, the reward is unpredictable.

What is extinction in operant conditioning?

In operant conditioning, extinction refers to the gradual weakening and eventual disappearance of a learned behavior. This occurs when the reinforcements that maintained the behavior are no longer provided.

For example, an employee who regularly receives bonuses for submitting reports early stops doing so when the bonuses are discontinued.

Here are some concepts connected to extinction.

  1. Extinct burst: The initial removal of reinforcement can sometimes lead to a temporary increase in the behavior, known as an “extinction burst.” The individual might try the behavior more frequently or intensely to receive the reinforcement again. For example, when a parent stops giving a child candies to stop her tantrum, the child throws more tantrums to try to get the candies again.
  2. Spontaneous Recovery: Even after a behavior has been extinguished, it can spontaneously reappear after some time has passed. For example, months after John quit smoking cold turkey, seeing someone smoke triggered his extinguished urge to smoke again.
  3. Resistance to Extinction: Some behaviors are more resistant to extinction, such as those reinforced more frequently or using a variable reinforcement schedule. For example, a gambler continues playing slot machines despite frequent losses, showing high resistance to extinction due to the occasional and unpredictable nature of winning.


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    Risley T. MONTROSE M. WOLF (1935–2004). Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis. Published online June 2005:279-287. doi:10.1901/jaba.2005.165-04
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    Skinner BF. “Superstition” in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Published online 1948:168-172. doi:10.1037/h0055873


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