Operant conditioning can be defined as a type of learning in which voluntary (controllable; non-reflexive) behavior is strengthened if it is reinforced and weakened if it is punished (or not reinforced) 1 . It states that environmental contingencies or the environment's 'reaction' to an individual's behaviour controls that individual's behaviour.
As an Undergraduate he was an English major, then decided to study Psychology in graduate school. Early in his career he believed much of behavior could be studied in a single, controlled environment (created Skinner box - address later). Instead of observing behavior in the natural world, he attempted to study behavior in a closed, controlled unit. This prevents any factors not under study from interfering with the study - as a result, Skinner could truly study behavior and specific factors that influence behavior. During the "cognitive revolution" that swept Psychology (discussed later), Skinner stuck to the position that behavior was not guided by inner force or cognition. This made him a "radical behaviorist". As his theories of Operant Conditioning developed, Skinner became passionate about social issues, such as free will, how they developed, why they developed, how they were propagated, etc. 1
Skinner state that actions that are followed by reinforcing consequences are more likely to re-occur, and that actions that are followed by unpleasant or punishing consequences are less likely to re-occur. Again this might seem deceptively simple. However, the theory becomes more complicated when one realizes that what constitutes punishment and reinforcement differs depending on the individual. Skinner also noted that the situation within which the learning took place had to be taken into account. In analyzing and trying to account for behaviour, the psychologist, as behavioural detective, needs to take into account the antecedent (what happens immediately before the behaviour), the behaviour, and the consequences of the behaviour. This method is known as the ABC approach (A for antecedent, B for behaviour and C for consequences).
There are five basic processes in operant conditioning: positive and negative reinforcement strengthen behavior; punishment, response cost, and extinction weaken behavior 2.
The term reinforcement always indicates a process that strengthens a behavior; the word positive has two cues associated with it. First, a positive or pleasant stimulus is used in the process, and second, the reinforcer is added (i.e., "positive" as in + sign for addition). In positive reinforcement, a positive reinforcer is added after a response and increases the frequency of the response. 2
The term reinforcement always indicates a process that strengthens a behavior; the word negative has two cues associated with it. First, a negative or aversive stimulus is used in the process, and second, the reinforcer is subtracted (i.e., "negative" as in a "-" sign for subtraction). In negative reinforcement, after the response the negative reinforcer is removed which increases the fre