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Operant Conditioning Consequences

Operant Conditioning Consequences

Author: Erick Taggart

Recognize the effects of positive and negative reinforcement.

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Hello, class.

In today's lesson, we're going to elaborate on Skinner's original ideas about operant conditioning. In particular, talking about the role of reinforcement and punishment. Remember, operant conditioning is when learning occurs through the association of consequences to behaviors. So what happens after, and as a result of, your actions makes it more or less likely for you to do something again later.

These consequences are grouped into two different categories. The first is the reinforcer, which is anything that follows a behavior and makes it more likely for a response to be repeated. Sometimes we call these rewards. And punishers, which are anything that follows a response and makes it less likely for a response to be repeated. We're going to elaborate on what goes into each of these categories in some detail.

First, let's take a look at reinforcement. There are two types of reinforcers that Skinner elaborated on, and those are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. I don't want you to think a positive and negative as good and bad. Rather, they go into more what the effects or the consequences are that change the behaviors. So don't think one is better than the other.

A positive reinforcement is anything that is presented to the subject, given to them, and makes it more likely for the response to be repeated. So these are things like, if you give a child candy, or sticker. A high five, or verbal praise. Things like that. Anything I'm giving to a person and making them more likely for to do something again later. So if I give that candy be to a child after they do a good job on, let's say, a test for math, they're more likely to perform well in math later, because they're receiving that reinforcement.

On the other hand, negative reinforcement is anything that is taken away from a subject, and makes it more likely for a response to be repeated. So remember, reinforcement is all about making it more likely for something to occur. So negative reinforcement is generally taking away something that's unpleasant, and making somebody want to perform an action more. For example, if there's an annoying sound that's in your room, that's turned off by pushing a button. That negative reinforcement is the annoying sound, which makes you more likely to perform the behavior of pushing the button. Or if you perform a chore so as not to get grounded. Or if you're grounded, you can take away that grounding, or that negative reinforcement, by doing the chore. So you're more likely to do what you're supposed to be doing.

On the other hand, punishment is making something less likely to occur. In other words, we're trying to suppress a behavior. To stop it from happening. There's been a lot of research, particularly in punishment, especially in childhood development and in education, where we want to see how effective it really is. Under punishment, there is positive and negative punishment, just like there's positive and negative reinforcement. But generally we don't refer to it that way. We kind of put it all together in one lump sum. You could think of it, though, in the same way.

Positive reinforcement is something you give to a person which makes it less likely for the behavior to occur. And that could be something like, let's say a loud noise or an electric shock, something you're giving to them. Whereas negative reinforcement is something you take away, which makes it less likely for something to occur. Like taking away a toy after a child does something bad. So you take away something they like, in other words, and make it less likely to do that bad thing that they had done right before.

Punishment, as well as negative reinforcement, is what we call aversive consequences. Which is to say, it's something following an action that is painful or uncomfortable, and it's something that somebody doesn't like. The difference between these aversive consequences, these bad things that we're causing, is that, remember, negative reinforcement makes it more likely for something to happen, whereas punishment makes it less likely for something to happen. So both of them deal with unpleasant things, but the consequences, the results are different.

Punishment can be more powerful than reinforcement, especially in the short term. You can change somebody's behavior rather quickly as a result of punishment, but it can have some negative or unwanted results. For example, when you're using punishment, you don't teach a person to be positive, or to learn pro-social kinds of behaviors. Generally, you're just teaching them either escape or avoidance learning.

Escape learning is learning to respond in a way that ends an aversive stimulus quickly. Trying to get away from it. Whereas avoidance, similarly, is learning to respond in a way that postpones or prevents an aversive stimulus from happening.

So instead of learning to deal with your problems, like bullying, let's say, a child instead learns to escape or avoid. Which in turn, rewards them with some kind of relief, so they feel better about it. Which makes them more likely to escape or avoid again. So punishment isn't necessarily teaching somebody in the best possible way.

Also, punishment tends to increase aggression in people, and makes them more likely to react violently towards others. Because generally, again, punishment deals with aversive consequences. Things they don't like. So people tend to react out a lot stronger.

The important thing with punishment is that it needs to be used in the best possible way. Which is to say that the punishment should be equal to, or it should be appropriate to, what is being responded to. It shouldn't be over and above what the actual action was. And it also needs to follow the behavior immediately afterwards, so there's a short amount of time in between those two things. And it also needs be followed or combined with reinforcement, as well. So there is some kind of positive aspect that goes along with the child's learning, and not constant punishment.

Terms to Know
Aversive Stimulus

Unpleasant event in the environment.

Avoidance Learning

Learning whose goal is to avoid the stimulus.

Escape Learning

Learning whose goal is to get away from the stimulus as soon as possible; "yes, dear".

Negative Reinforcement

Any consequence that is taken from the subject that increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.

Positive Reinforcement

Any consequence that is given to the subject that increases the likelihood of repeating the behavior.


Same as punishment.


A consequence that decreases the likelihood of repeat behavior.