Operant conditioning techniques have
practical applications in many areas of human life. Parents who understand the basic principles of operant conditioning can
reinforce their children’s appropriate behaviors and punish inappropriate ones, and they can use generalization and
discrimination techniques to teach which behaviors are appropriate in particular situations. In the classroom, many teachers
reinforce good academic performance with small rewards or privileges. Companies have used lotteries to improve attendance,
productivity, and job safety among their employees.
Psychologists known as behavior therapists
use the learning principles of operant conditioning to treat children or adults with behavior problems or psychological disorders.
Behavior therapists use shaping techniques to teach basic job skills to adults with mental retardation. Therapists use reinforcement
techniques to teach self-care skills to people with severe mental illnesses, such as schizophrenia, and use punishment and
extinction to reduce aggressive and antisocial behaviors by these individuals. Psychologists also use operant conditioning
techniques to treat stuttering, sexual disorders, marital problems, drug addictions, impulsive spending, eating disorders,
and many other behavioral problems. See Behavior Modification.
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Applications of Operant Conditioning
Operant conditioning has become
a very influential area of psychology, because it has successfully provided practical solutions to many problems in human
behavior. Operant principles discovered in the laboratory are now being employed to improve teaching techniques so that even
slow or unmotivated students can learn faster and better.
Behavior modification is
the application of operant conditioning techniques to modify behavior. It is being used to help people with a wide variety
of everyday behavior problems, including obesity, smoking, alcoholism, delinquency, and aggression. For example, people with
the eating disorder anorexia nervosa have been helped to gain weight, and animals such as primates have been trained to assist
physically disabled individuals by feeding and caring for them. It has been successfully used in child rearing, in school
systems, and in mental institutions.
One example of a therapeutic use of behavior modification
is the token economy method. A classic study was conducted in a mental hospital with psychiatric patients who had difficulty
performing expected behaviors (Ayllon & Azrin, 1968). The researchers chose a number of simple grooming behaviors, including
face washing, hair combing, teeth brushing, bed making, and dressing properly. The researchers first recorded baseline, or
normally occurring, frequencies of the behaviors. Then they gave the patients a token every time the proper behavior was performed.
The tokens could be exchanged for food and personal items at the hospital drugstore. The patients significantly increased
the frequency of the desired behaviors when they were reinforced with tokens.
It has even
been suggested that the principles of operant conditioning can be used efficiently to control a society. B. F. Skinner, in
his 1948 novel, Walden Two, presented a utopian society guided by operant conditioning principles. His 1971 book, Beyond
Freedom and Dignity, caused a controversy by presenting his ideas on how operant conditioning could be utilized in an
actual society. Although most people are not willing to accept Skinner's utopian ideal, the principles of operant conditioning
are being applied in our everyday lives.
Using Operant Conditioning to Explain
• Nations that did not support the United
invasion of Iraq in 2003 are excluded from bidding on lucrative
contracts in rebuilding Iraq (France, Russia, Germany, Canada)
• The U.S. cutt off military aid to 35 friendly countries in retaliation for their
support of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and refusal to exempt U.S. soldiers from the ICC’s jurisdiction.
• Will small fines (caps on punitive damages) deter large corporations (eg. Microsoft,
Phillip Morris, G.E./Westinghouse/NBC, Bristol-Myer) from breaking the law?
• Will small fines (caps on punitive damages) deter small businesses from breaking
• During the Seattle WTO protest, why did the media show cover the anarchists who broke
windows and not the reason for the protest? Why will the media do this in the future? What effect does this have on “the
• When a woman tells an abusive partner “what she really thinks”, and the
abusive partner (usually a man) yells at her for this behavior, what will occur in the future?
• How can you make this into an example of classical conditioning?
• Why do politicians, friends, coworkers, significant others tell us what we want to
• What happens when we tell people what they want to hear?
• Do we tend to reinforce their behavior?
• Do we tend to punish their behavior?
• What are the effects on society?