Operative conditioning: main concepts and techniques

In behavioral procedures, operant or instrumental conditioning is probably the one that has the most numerous and varied applications.

From the treatment of phobias to the control of addictions such as smoking or alcoholism, the operating diagram makes it possible to conceptualize and modify practically any habit of the intervention on a few elements.

But What exactly is operant conditioning? In this article, we review the key concepts for understanding this paradigm and detail its most common applications, both to increase behaviors and to reduce them.

Context of operational conditioning

Operative conditioning as we know it was formulated and systematized by Burrhus Frederic Skinner on the basis of ideas previously raised by other authors.

Ivan Pavlov and John B. Watson had described the classic conditioning, also called simple conditioning the Pavlovian.

For his part, Edward Thorndike introduced the law of effect, the clearest antecedent of operant conditioning. The law of effect states that if a behavior has positive consequences for the perpetrator, it will be more likely to be repeated, while if it has negative consequences, this probability will decrease. In the context of Thorndike’s work, operant conditioning is called “instrumental”.

    Difference between classical and operant conditioning

    The main difference between classical and operant conditioning is that the former refers to learning information about a stimulus, while the latter it is a question of knowing the consequences of the answer.

    Skinner was of the opinion that the behavior was much easier to modify if its consequences were manipulated than if stimuli were simply associated with it, as in classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is based on the acquisition of reflex responses, which explains less learning and their uses are more limited than those of the operator, because it refers to behaviors that the subject can control at will.

      Operant conditioning concepts

      Then, we will define the basic concepts of operative conditioning to better understand this procedure and its applications.

      Many of these terms are shared by behavioral orientations in general, although they may have specific connotations within the operative paradigm.

      Instrumental or operative response

      This term designates any behavior that results in a particular consequence and is subject to change based on this. Its name indicates that it serves to obtain something (instrumental) and that it acts on means (operant) instead of being provoked by it, as happens in the case of classical conditioning or responder.

      In behaviorist theory, the word “response” is basically equivalent to “behavior” and “action”, although “response” seems to refer more to the presence of antecedent stimuli.


      In behavioral and cognitive-behavioral psychology, a consequence is the result of a response. The consequence can be positive (reinforcement) or negative (punishment) for the subject performing the driving; in the first case, the probability of giving the answer will increase and in the second, it will decrease.

      It is important to keep in mind that the consequences affect the response and therefore in operative conditioning what is reinforced or punished is that behavior, not the person or animal performing it. At all times, we work with the intention of influence how stimuli and responses relateSince behaviorist philosophy avoids starting from an essentialist view of the people, placing more emphasis on which they can change what they always seem to remain the same.


      This term designates the consequences of behaviors when they become more likely that they are given again. Reinforcement can be positive, in which case we will talk about getting a reward or reward for performing a response, or negative, which includes the disappearance of aversive stimuli.

      In negative reinforcement we can distinguish between avoidance and flight responses. Avoidance behaviors prevent or prevent the appearance of an aversive stimulus; for example, an agoraphobic person who does not leave the house because they do not feel anxiety avoids this emotion. Instead, the escape responses cause the stimulus to disappear when it is already present.

      The difference with the word “reinforcer” is that it refers to the event that occurs as a result of the conduct rather than the reward or punishment process. Therefore, “reinforcer” is a term closer to “reward” and “reward” than to “reinforcement”.


      A punishment is the consequence of certain behavior that decreases the probability let it repeat itself.

      Like reinforcement, punishment can be positive or negative. Positive punishment is the presentation of an aversive stimulus after the response occurs, while negative punishment is the withdrawal of an appetitive stimulus as a result of the behavior.

      Positive punishment can be related to the general use of the word “punishment”, while negative punishment rather refers to some kind of sanction or fine. If a child does not stop screaming and receives a slap from his mother because he is in the street, a positive punishment will be applied to him, while if he removes the console on which he is playing, he will receive a negative punishment. .

        Discriminatory stimulation and delta stimulus

        In psychology, the word “stimulus” is used to refer to events that elicit a response from a person or animal. In the operative paradigm, the discriminating stimulus is the one whose presence indicates to the subject of learning that if he achieves a certain behavior, this one will have as consequence of the appearance of a reinforcer or a punishment.

        In contrast, the term “delta stimulus” refers to signals which, when present, indicate that the execution of the response will be of no consequence.

        What is operant conditioning?

        Instrumental or operant conditioning is a learning procedure based on the fact that the probability is given a given answer depends on the consequences expected. In operative conditioning, behavior is controlled by discriminating stimuli present in the learning situation which convey information about the likely consequences of the response.

        For example, an “Open” sign on a door tells us that if we try to turn the knob, it will most likely open. In this case, the poster would be the discriminatory stimulus and opening the door would function as a positive reinforcer of the instrumental response of turning the knob.

        Behavioral analysis applied by BF Skinner

        Skinner developed operant conditioning techniques which are encompassed in what we call “applied behavior analysis”. This has been found to be particularly effective in the education of children, with particular emphasis on children with developmental difficulties.

        The basic scheme of applied behavior analysis is as follows. First, a behavioral goal is set, which will consist of increasing or decreasing certain behaviors. On this basis, the behaviors to be developed will be reinforced and the existing incentives to perform the behaviors that are supposed to be inhibited will be reduced.

        Usually removing reinforcers is more desirable than punishment positive because it generates less rejection and hostility on the part of the subject. However, punishment can be useful in cases where problematic behavior is very disruptive and requires rapid reduction, for example in cases of violence.

        Throughout the process, it is essential to systematically monitor progress in order to be able to objectively check whether the desired objectives are being achieved. This is mainly done through data logging.

        Operative techniques to develop behaviors

        Given the importance and effectiveness of positive reinforcement, exploitation techniques to increase behaviors have proven to be useful. Below we will describe the most relevant among these procedures.

        1. Incentive techniques

        The techniques of instigation are considered to be those which they depend on the manipulation of discriminatory stimuli to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring.

        This term includes instructions that increase certain behaviors, physical guidance, which involves moving or placing parts of the trained person’s body, and modeling, in which a model is observed performing a behavior in order to imitate and learn what their consequences are. These three procedures have in common that they focus on teach the subject directly how to perform an action determined, verbally or physically.

        2. Modeling

        It consists of gradually bringing a given behavior closer to the target behavior, starting with a relatively similar response that the subject can make and gradually modifying it. It is produced by stages (successive approaches) to which reinforcement is applied.

        Casting is considered particularly useful for establishing behaviors in subjects who cannot communicate verbally, such as people with profound intellectual disabilities or animals.

        3. Discoloration

        Discoloration refers to the gradual withdrawal of aid or instigators that had been used to reinforce a target behavior. It is expected that the subject will consolidate a response and then be able to perform it without the need for outside help.

        This is one of the key concepts of operant conditioningBecause it makes it possible to generalize the progress of therapy or training to many other areas of life.

        This procedure essentially consists of substituting one discriminatory stimulus for another.

        4. Chaining

        A behavioral chain, that is, a behavior made up of several simple behaviors, is separated into different stages (links). Then the subject has to learn how to run the links one by one until he can complete the chain.

        The chaining can be done forward or backward and has the particularity that each link reinforces the previous one and functions as a discriminatory stimulus of the next.

        In some ways, a large part of the skills considered to be talents for showing a high degree of skill and specialization (such as playing a musical instrument very well, dancing very well, etc.) can be considered as the result of some form of chaining. , since basic skills one progresses until reaching others much more worked.

        5. Reinforcement programs

        In an operational learning procedure, reinforcement programs are guidelines that establish when driving will be rewarded and when not.

        There are two types of strengthening programs: reason and interval. In reasoning programs, the reinforcer is obtained after a specific number of responses has been given, while in interval programs this occurs after some time has passed since the last reinforced behavior and it is given again.

        Both types of programs can be fixed or variable, indicating that the number of responses or the time interval required to obtain the intensifier can be constant or oscillate around an average value. They can also be continuous or intermittent; this means that the reward can be given whenever the subject performs the objective behavior or from time to time (although always following the issuance of the desired response).

        Continuous reinforcement is most helpful in establishing behaviors and the intermittent to keep them. So theoretically a dog will learn to give the paw faster if we give him a price every time he offers the paw to us, but once he learns the behavior it will be more difficult for him to stop giving the paw. do it if we give it the one in three booster. or five attempts.

        Surgical techniques to reduce or eliminate behaviors

        When applying surgical techniques to reduce behaviors, it should be borne in mind that since these procedures can be unpleasant for subjects, it is always best to use the least aversive when possible. the same these techniques are preferable to positive punishments.

        Below is a list of these techniques in order from lowest to highest potential for generating aversion.

        1. Extinction

        Behavior that had been reinforced is no longer rewarded previously. This decreases the likelihood that the answer will be given again. Formal extinction is the opposite of positive reinforcement.

        Long-term extinction it is more effective at suppressing responses than at punishments and other exploitation techniques to reduce behavior, although this may be slower.

        A basic example of extinction is getting a child to stop kicking simply by ignoring – until he realizes that his behavior is not having the desired consequences (e.g. parental anger, which would act as a reminder) and afarti.

        2. Omission training

        In this procedure, the subject’s conduct is followed by the absence of reward; in other words that is to say, if the answer is given, the reinforcer will not be obtained. An example of omission training could be some parents blocking their daughter from watching TV tonight for speaking disrespectfully to them. Another example would be not buying the toys that children ask for if they misbehave.

        In the field of education, it also serves to encourage that the efforts of others be more valued to please the little ones and which they, having become accustomed to these relationships, do not value.

        3. Differential strengthening programs

        This is a special subtype of strengthening program used to reduce (not eliminate) target behaviors by increasing others alternative answers. For example, a child might be rewarded for reading and exercising and not playing on the console if the latter behavior is destined to lose its reinforcement value.

        In low rate differential reinforcement, the response is strengthened if a certain period of time is given after the last time it occurred. In differential omission reinforcement, the reinforcement is obtained if, after a certain period of time, the response has not occurred. The differential reinforcement of incompatible behaviors consists of reinforce incompatible responses with problematic behavior; the latter procedure applies to tics and onychophagia, among other disorders.

        4. Cost of response

        Variant of the negative sentence in which the execution of the problematic behavior results in the loss of a booster. The points card for drivers which was introduced in Spain a few years ago is a good example of a response cost program.

        5. Time out

        Downtime involves isolating the subject, usually children, in a non-stimulating environment in the event of problematic behavior. Also a variant of negative punishment, differs from the cost of the response in which what is lost is the possibility of accessing the reinforcement, Not the booster itself.

        6. Saturation

        The reinforcement obtained to carry out the driving is so intense or so numerous that it loses its value that he had for subject. This can be done out of satiety of response or massive practice (repeating the behavior until it ceases to be appetizing) or through satiety of the stimulus (the reinforcer loses its appetite by excess).


        Overcorrection involves the application of a positive punishment related to problematic behavior. For example, it is widely used in cases of enuresis, in which the child is asked to wash the sheets after urinating at night.

        Emergency organization techniques

        Emergency organization systems are complex procedures by which one can reinforce certain behaviors and punish others.

        The economics of tiles is a well-known example of this type of technique. It consists of delivering tokens (or other equivalent generic reinforcers) as a reward for performing the target behaviors; Subsequently, the subjects can exchange their tokens for prizes of variable value. It is used in schools, prisons and mental hospitals.

        Behavioral contracts or contingencies are agreements between several people, usually two, by which they agree to perform (or not perform) certain behaviors. The contracts detail the consequences in the event of compliance or non-compliance with the agreed conditions.

        Bibliographical references:

        • Domjam, M. (2010). Basic principles of learning and behavior. Madrid: Thomson.

        • Pages, FJ (2008). Behavior modification techniques. Madrid: Pyramid.

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