Theories of Development: Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning

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Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning focuses on the study of observable behavior instead of the central mental occurrences (Henton & Iversen, 2011). In the theory, Skinner asserts that the behavior is better acknowledged through examining its causes and consequences. Even though the cause and effects relationship had already been examined by other scholars, Skinner introduced the reinforcement factor in the theory of operant conditioning (McLeod, 2007). According to the theory, human behavior is mainly influenced by the environment. In other words, the behavior is a result of environmental conditions. Operants are the responses to the environmental conditions that determine behavior. Skinner identified three categories of operants including neutral, reinforcers and purnishers. The neutral operants are the environmental responses that have an impartial possibility of a conduct be continual. The reinforcers are responses that cause increased chances of an action be reiterated. Reinforcers can either be affirmative or undesirable. On the other hand, purnishers are responses that reduce the prospect of conduct being repeated. Generally, according to the theory, individual behaviors are influenced by these environmental conditions and responses.

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Whether the Reinforcers Influence Individual Behavior

As indicated, the reinforcers are those reactions that increase the prospect of a conduct being recurrent. Positive reinforcement has the attribute of strengthening the behavior through the provision of the consequences that an individual find fortifying (Boyd & Bee, 2011). On the other hand, removal of unpleasant stimulus strengthens the behavior. The elimination of the antagonistic environmental conditions that is rewarding to the individual is the negative reinforcement (McLeod, 2007). Based on the evidences, it can be argued that both the positive and negative reinforcement influences an individual behavior. In fact, individual behaviors have been conditioned in many instances based on the negative and positive reinforcements.

The instance where the theory has been mainly applied is in the correctional facilities in which the behaviors of individuals are conditioned depending on the negative reinforcements and punishments. Even though other factors including biological and cognitive play a significant role in the determination of the individual behavior, the environmental conditions largely influence the individual conducts (Henton & Iversen, 2011). The positive and negative reinforcements explain why children of the same parents studying in different schools have dissimilar behaviors. The same reasons also explain why better performances are rewarded.

Essentially, changing the environmental conditions has increased possibilities of changing an individual behavior. In other words, using a set of techniques based on the operant conditioning, an individual behavior can be modified (Boyd & Bee, 2011). The reason explains why parents will punish children for unwarranted behavior while provide rewards for the positive behaviors. Providing the positive reinforcement and removing the negative reinforcement conditions the child to adopt and practice an acceptable behavior. As such, it can be argued that the negative and positive reinforcement responses can be used to condition individuals to behave in a certain manner.

The Relevance of the Theory to the Society

As indicated, the theory has found many applications within the society. The theory has not only been applied in correcting the wrong doers but also in the upbringing of the children. The societal applications also include the behavior modification therapies such as the token economy and the conduct modeling through rewarding best performances (McLeod, 2007). The rewards can either be positive or negative based on the conduct. The society also utilizes various forms of rewards including physical and non-physical. The society uses positive and negative reinforcements to shape the individual behavior. Besides, the society inculcates the norms and cultural orientations through the application of positive and negative reinforcements. Therefore, it can be argued that the theory is relevant within the society.


Like all the behaviorist theories, the operant conditioning is about the behavior observations in favor of analyzing the internal mental events such as thinking and emotion. The main assumption of the theory is that the environment plays a significant role in determining an individual behavior. In fact, the operant conditioning is widely applied in explaining different individual conducts ranging from basic learning to language acquisition.

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Boyd, D. & Bee, H. (2011). Lifespan development. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson

Henton, W. W. & Iversen, I. H. (2011). Classical conditioning and operant conditioning: a response pattern analysis. New York, NY: Springer

McLeod, S. A. (2007). Skinner – operant conditioning. Web.

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PsychologyWriting. (2022) 'Theories of Development: Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning'. 12 April.


PsychologyWriting. 2022. "Theories of Development: Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning." April 12, 2022.

1. PsychologyWriting. "Theories of Development: Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning." April 12, 2022.


PsychologyWriting. "Theories of Development: Skinner’s Theory of Operant Conditioning." April 12, 2022.