Learning and Learning Theories

2. Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner, the Harward Psychologist developed operant conditioning theory. This theory is based on the assumption that behaviour is a function of its consequences. These can be either positive or negative. The behaviour will be repeated if the consequences are favourable. It will not be repeated if the consequences are unfavourable. Thus, the essence of operant conditioning lies between behaviour and its consequences. The word operant is defined as behavior that produced effects. The consequences of behaviour are used to influence behaviour through reinforcement or punishment or extinction. In this way operant conditioning changes behaviour through the use of positive or negative consequences for specific behaviours. This can be shown as following:

For example : In an organisation if the manager give assurance to his worker to give him suitable reward if he works overtime, but when the evaluation time comes the manager did not fulfil his promise the worker will decline to work overtime when asked next time. On the other hand if the worker is rewarded for his hard and overtime work he will do the work with greater enthusiasm next time. Thus, operant conditioning can be seen in everyday life. It can be used in controlling alcoholism and for deviant children in a classroom.

Thus, operant conditioning has a great impact on human learning than classical conditioning. In an oganisation the behaviours are change and controlled by consequences. Operant conditioning can be used by management to control an influence the behaviour of employees. Renolds gives importance to operant conditioning for modem behaviourism as follows :

i. A series of assumptions about behaviour and its environment.

ii. A set of definition which can be used in an objective, scientific description of behavior and its environment.

iii. A group of techniques and procedures for experimental study of behavior in the laboratory.

iv. A large body facts and principles which have been demonstrated by experiment.

These points show that operant conditioning leads to a very comprehensive approach to the study of behavior. Two aspects of immediate relevance are reinforcement of behavior and behavior modification.

Difference between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning Operant conditioning
A specific stimulus (such as food) is used to elicit a specific response which is then elicited (involuntary response). Response is spontaneously emitted by the subject (voluntary response).
The stimulus, conditioned or unconditioned, serving as a reward, is presented every time for response to occur. In operant conditioning, the reward is presented only if the organism gives the correct response.
Conditioned stimulus can be an object or a sound. Conditioned stimulus is a situation.
Classical connection can be expressed as S-R Operant connection can be expressed as R-S


i. The Operant Conditioning Theory is more realistic. For its says: ‘first show performance, then expect reward’, very much like the adage ‘first deserve, then desire’. It also enjoins—show still more performance and earn still more reward.

ii. Another practical use of the theory is that it facilitates the prediction and control of organizational behaviour through analysis of its consequences. Such analysis can also be extended to judge the efficiency of managers.


i. It is a manipulative theory because it attempts at controlling behavioural consequences in such a way that employees are treated like rats in a training box. But most of them are intelligent enough and in a position to exercise self-control. So the theory is weak on humanitarian grounds.

ii. In practice the environment is something very complex, which is subject to many types of stimuli and reinforcements. Thus it is difficult to change behavior through the environment by manipulating only one item independently.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Scroll to top
You cannot copy content of this page. The content on this website is NOT for redistribution