Operant conditioning was originally developed by the pioneering behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner. Also known as “Instrumental Conditioning” It employs associative learning principles that specifically focus on the strength of behavior as well as how it can be modified through either positive or negative. Reinforcement.

In the modern landscape of psychology, operant conditioning’s principles can be applied to adults as well as children. It can even be used to train pets, and companion animals. Though the most widely used form of operant conditioning is Applied Behavioral Analysis therapy, which is considered by many to be the gold standard for helping individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

B.F. Skinner & The History of Operant Conditioning

While B.F. Skinner is considered by most to be the father of operant conditioning, the root concepts go even further back in history. It starts with a series of studies performed by Edward L. Thorndike, who researched and developed the “Law of Effect.” It was defined by the American Psychology Association, as the “principle that consequences of behavior act to modify the future probability of occurrence of that behavior.”

In time, another notable psychologist John B. Watson modified the concept by focusing on outward and external behaviors, instead of the traditional psychological focus on internal emotions. These studies were further developed by Clark Hull and Kenneth Speech. Though they studied the mathematical laws that surround learned behavior.

It took the Behaviorist psychologist B.F. Skinner to bring all these principles together into what we now recognize as operant conditioning. Skinner ardently disagreed with Hull and Speech’s “Neobehaviorism” concepts and instead sought other explanations for external behaviors. This included looking at methodologies for how they could be reinforced or modified.

Skinner drew inspiration from Watson’s early theories by examining internal thoughts and motivations. Then he took it a step further by examining the external influences through objective observations of the individual’s environment to help assess the possible causes of their behavior. Skinner essentially layered Watson’s ideas with the consequences of a specific behavior as the top priority. Then also taking into account environmental factors, as well as the individual’s skills.

In this way, Skinner remained focused on how the consequences of people’s actions played a role in their future behavior. He also factored in how reinforcement and punishment come into play.

Skinner’s operant conditioning principles took the world of psychology by storm in the early 20th century. It has continued to evolve and refine itself into the 21st Century in other targeted and data-driven forms like Applied Behavior Analysis therapy. Today ABA therapy is considered the gold standard for treating and improving the behaviors of individuals with autism spectrum disorder.

What Are The Fundamentals of Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning has a few fundamental concepts. Understanding them in more detail can help you understand the benefits of one school of thought over another for meeting an individual’s needs.

Understanding People

Operant conditioning’s concepts start with the belief that the best way to understand people is through understanding their observable behaviors. The goal is to generate quantifiable data, which can be analyzed and tracked. This provides a data-driven methodology to formulate customized strategies to modify the individual’s behavior.

For approaches like ABA therapy, the data and analysis phase is the cornerstone of how providers understand and help their clients. A lot of ABA clinicians are trained to use observable data to understand their clients, and what they need. This serves as a guiding foundation for developing the most effective treatment strategy, customized to that individual’s needs.

Reinforcing Good Behavior

It’s important to keep in mind that in the realm of operant conditioning, not every behavior needs to be modified. In some cases, positive reinforcement of good behavior can be the most effective method for conditioning someone to do more or less of any given behavior. This concept is a very strong tool used by ABA therapists to use with their clients, who usually need help dealing with autism spectrum disorder.

Reducing Negative Behaviors

B.F. Skinner strongly believed that reinforcements and punishments could be used strategically to address negative or disruptive behavior to eliminate or unlearn them. He believed that the reason an individual acts in a certain way can be modified.

We see this clearly demonstrated in the data-driven approach of ABA therapy. Where a clinician might use operant conditioning strategies to steer their client away from disruptive tendencies while using positive reinforcement to strengthen constructive behaviors in place of negative ones.

Understanding How Environment Impacts Behavior

Operant conditioning also focuses on how the individual’s environment directly influences how they behave. This is strongly demonstrated in ABA therapy where a child or adult with autism spectrum disorder starts to act disruptively in a specific class or environment yet behave normally in another.

In a lot of these instances, it is the environment of the classroom or triggered setting that elicits a behavior. ABA therapy uses a data-driven approach to consider these environmental factors and how to modify behavior in situations where the individual might be triggered to engage in negative behavior.

Understanding How Behaviors Are Learned

Operant conditioning and ABA therapy offer insights to psychologists and other clinicians on how behaviors are learned. B.F. Skinner believed external behaviors could be understood and learned or unlearned. This meant that a negative behavior might have started when a child began to associate something with feeling bad or negative.

Using Reinforcement & Punishment To Modify Behavior

Strategically using reinforcement and punishment is one of the cornerstone principles of operant conditioning. This involves reinforcing positive behaviors with rewards while applying metered punishment for negative behaviors. The overarching goal is for the positive, rewarded behavior to take the place of a punished, negative behavior as the negative behavior is vacated.

ABA Therapy & Operant Conditioning

ABA therapy (Applied Behavior Analysis) uses operant conditioning and the theories of B.F. Skinner to help individuals on the autism spectrum. It uses evidence-based interventions to help children who operate on the autism spectrum. This data-driven approach employs operant conditioning to help children change behavior in a variety of ways. This includes social skills, communication skills, and educational skills.