Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner)

Operant conditioning BF Skinner - toolshoero

This article provides a practical explanation of the Operant Conditioning by B. F. Skinner. After reading, you’ll understand the basics of this powerful motivation tool.

What Is Operant Conditioning by Skinner?

Operant Conditioning is aimed at the motivation of employees and what encourages and reinforces good or bad behaviour at work and is part of the Reinforcement Theory of Motivation. The Reinforcement Theory of Motivation, also referred to as behaviourism or learning theory, functions as a mechanism to influence human behaviour within a team or organisation by means of several methods from theory, such as reinforcement, punishment or eradication. In the theory, positive and productive behaviour is rewarded, whereas negative behaviour is punished. The theory analyses the relationship between these two factors, the behaviour and the accompanying consequences. This is also referred to as operant conditioning.

The theory is fully focused on the individual when he or she takes action. Operant Conditioning doesn’t oversee the inner state of the person, or the inner motivators and feelings. Nor is the theory aimed at the cause of certain behaviour in individuals, but it can be used as a tool to analyse control mechanisms for specific behaviour. According to the author of the theory, the external operational environment must be positively and effectively designed to motivate employees.

The theory was developed by B. F. Skinner (1904-1990). This American psychologist was a professor at Harvard University, from which he retired in 1974. He based the theory on the ‘law of effect’. This means that people’s behaviour with positive consequences tends to be repeated, whereas behaviour with negative consequences doesn’t.

Operant Conditioning in the Reinforcement Theory of Motivation

Operant Conditioning emphasises that the environmental factors of an individual determine behaviour. For this reason, Skinner believed that the environment in which these employees are active, must be cleverly designed. According to the theory, a manager has four methods available to encourage desirable behaviour and discourage negative behaviour.

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Positive Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

According to Operant Conditioning, positive reinforcement is the positive response that is given to an employee who displays good behaviour. This positive response increases the chance that the employee will display the good behaviour more often. Rewards are a form of motivation to repeat good behaviour, but aren’t essential. However, if rewards are chosen, they could be financial bonuses, days off or other encouraging measures. After Herzberg’s research, we know that rewards boost extrinsic motivation. Intrinsic motivation, however, proves to be more durable and more satisfying.

This positive behavioural consequence is referred to as reinforcement. An example of a situation in which this takes place is a salesman who makes the sales quota after extra effort. His manager gives him a monetary reward for this, which can encourage this positive behaviour in the future.

Negative Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

According to Operant Conditioning, negative reinforcement occurs when someone is rewarded by removing negative or undesired consequences of certain behaviour to encourage positive behaviour. Negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment, but those are certainly different. Negative reinforcement tries to reinforce positive behaviour, whereas punishment is aimed at reducing the chance of bad behaviour.

An example. A project manager could ask his team members to send him a report on progress and completed deadlines every day. In general, this is considered to be an unpleasant task. After several weeks of good behaviour, the manager might consider reducing the frequency of these reports to once a week. In doing so, the manager removes a negative behavioural consequence to encourage good behaviour.

Punishment

Punishment refers to the imposing of negative behavioural consequences and must not be confused with negative reinforcement, which involves removing a negative behavioural consequence. Punishment is aimed at reducing the chance of specific negative behaviours. It’s one of the most frequently used methods to control behaviour, but many experts suggest that it shouldn’t only be used as positive and negative reinforcement, or as eradication.

A warning is an example of punishment. A warning is a punishment that’s imposed upon an employee who arrives late at the office in the morning. This discourages this employee from being late again, undesired behaviour.

Eradication

According to Operant Conditioning, eradication refers to stopping learned behaviour, for instance by refraining from giving positive reinforcement to someone. Eradication implies the absence of reinforcements in general, to increase the chance of reducing undesired behaviour. Often, this is done by ending behaviour employees have learned during a certain period.

An example. It’s possible that managers make employees work overtime in a busy period as positive reinforcement with the goal to have employees come to the office more often and longer. This works well for a while, but after some time, the employees’ focus starts to wane and the work slows down. Subsequently, the manager stops approving overtime and discourages the employees from working this much. Eradication is a method that must be handled with care, because employees who no longer experience positive reinforcement don’t feel appreciated. Consequently, eradication can severely damage the team’s moral and decrease productivity. This has negative consequences, not personally, but rather on the effectiveness of the organisation as a whole.

Timing

Operant Conditioning is about encouraging behavioural changes. To realise the right behavioural changes and keep general behaviour in check, reinforcement must be applied more than once. There are various ways and time schedules for offering reinforcement to employees.

If behaviour is reinforced every time it is displayed, this is referred to as constant reinforcement. In general, constant reinforcement is the fastest way of conditioning new behaviour, although this often isn’t realistic and feasible in practice. Therefore, periodic schedules are regularly used. Periodic reinforcement entails that not all behaviours are reinforced when displayed. There are multiple types of periodic schedules with various intervals: a fixed interval schedule, variable interval schedule and a variable ratio schedule. In a fixed interval schedule, reinforcement occurs between fixed periods, for instance with a salary that’s paid every two weeks. In a variable interval schedule, reinforcement is offered on varying times. Here, no schedule is followed. When a manager pays his employee a compliment because he arrives at the office so early, that probably wasn’t planned. In a variable ratio schedule, reinforcement is given after a few desired behaviours have been displayed. A good way of achieving this is by giving a bonus so all desired behaviours are displayed during work hours.

Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognise the explanation of Operant Conditioning? What do you believe are factors that influence the motivation and positive behaviour of employees? Do you feel that punishment is a good method to reduce the chance of negative behaviour? Do you have any tips or additional comments?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

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More information

  1. Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American psychologist, 18(8), 503.
  2. Staats, A. W., & Eifert, G. H. (1990). The paradigmatic behaviorism theory of emotions: Basis for unification. Clinical Psychology Review, 10(5), 539-566.
  3. Iversen, I. H. (1992). Skinner’s early research: From reflexology to operant conditioning. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1318.

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Ben Janse
Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.

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