Operant Conditioning

by Brad Waggoner

So what’s all this operant conditioning people are talking about? It seems that many in the positive training world have capitalized on the term.  Yes, we do use Positive Reinforcement, but that’s only one quadrant of operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning consists of four principals or, as they’re known: quadrants.   They are:

  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Negative Reinforcement
  • Positive Punishment
  • Negative Punishment

First, let’s look at what Reinforcement and Punishment mean. A Reinforcer is anything that when presented following a behavior, causes that behavior to be more likely to occur again.  Punishment, on the other hand, is providing a consequence for a behavior that decreases the probability that the behavior will occur again.  One shouldn’t think of punishment from a cultural view of retribution.

So what about the Negative and Positive side of each?

In using Positive Reinforcement, something that the learner finds pleasurable is added following the behavior, thus causing that behavior to be more likely to happen again.  Example: Owner calls his dog and the dog comes running to him. The owner follows up with some tasty chicken. Result is that the dog is more likely to repeat the behavior of running to his owner

In using Negative Reinforcement, an aversive stimuli is removed when the behavior is performed in order to make it more likely to happen again.  Example: Owner calls his dog then applies an electric shock via remote. When the dog runs to the owner, the shock goes away.  The dog learns he can avoid the shock by running to the owner.

In using Punishment, to put it simply, if an aversive stimuli is added to stop a behavior it is Positive Punishment (think as positive being the + sign, something added).  If, on the other hand, something is taken away in order to stop behavior it is Negative Punishment (think negative as the – sign something subtracted).

Example of Positive Punishment:  The dog starts to pull on the leash and the owner gives a quick jerk on the pinch collar, dog stops pulling.

Example of Negative Punishment: The dog jumps up to greet the owner, the owner turns his attention away or even walks away. The dog learns that jumping up causes the good thing (the person) to go away.

So for us positive trainers and clicker trainers, we DO use some operant conditioning, as well as classical conditioning; but so do all the other trainers out there, even those who still use punishment as a means to their end.

So when you’re talking to a trainer and they tell you that they use operant conditioning be sure to ask how much and which parts.


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