ap psych study guides

🤔  Unit 5: Cognitive Psychology

👶  Unit 6: Developmental Psychology

🤪  Unit 7: Motivation, Emotion, & Personality

🛋  Unit 8: Clinical Psychology

4.3 Operant Conditioning





⏱️  4 min read

written by

John Mohl

john mohl

Dalia Savy

dalia savy


November 18, 2020

available on hyper typer

Operant conditioning refers to when a behavior leads to an environmental response, which in turn affects the likelihood of the behavior happening again.


Image Courtesy of Verywell mind.

One of the earliest contributors to this aspect of learning was E.L. Thorndike, who found that behaviors that had a favorable outcome were strengthened, while behaviors that had an unfavorable outcome were weakened. He referred to this as his Law of Effect. 

B.F. Skinner took this principle further and described different types of consequences that can occur and the ways in which they might be presented that could affect the presentation of the behavior.

🎥 Watch: AP PsychologyOperant Conditioning with Pigeons

Reinforcement and Punishment

When a behavior is reinforced, it means there is a greater likelihood that the behavior will occur again. When a behavior is punished, there's a lessened likelihood that the behavior will happen again.


Image Courtesy of Verywell Mind.

When the consequence is described as "positive," it does not necessarily mean good. When something is positive, it means something is presented, given, or appears. When something is negative, it doesn't mean that something is necessarily bad. When a consequence is negative, it means that something disappears or is taken away as a result of the behavior. 

Thus, when a behavior is positively reinforced, it means something is presented (usually something pleasant) to increase the likelihood of the behavior happening again. When something is negatively reinforced, it means something is taken away (usually something unpleasant) to make that behavior happen again.

When something is positively punished, it means something is presented (usually something unpleasant) making the behavior happen less often, while something that is negatively punished has something taken away (usually something pleasant) to make that behavior happen less often.

Operant Conditioning Term




Positive Reinforcement

Add or increase a pleasant stimulus

Behavior is strengthened 

You get a cookie for an “A.” 🍪



Reduce or remove an unpleasant stimulus

Behavior is strengthened

Taking painkillers (removes pain), the behavior of taking painkillers is strengthened. 

Positive Punishment

Add an unpleasant stimulus

Behavior is weakened

Give more homework for misbehavior ✍️

Negative Punishment

Reduce or remove pleasant stimulus 

Behavior is weakened

No phone 📱 after breaking curfew 

Table adapted from Open Source Textbook.

🎥 Watch: AP PsychologyPositive and Negative Punishments

Limitations to Operant Conditioning

Despite stringent behaviorists’ claims, there are limitations to classical conditioning. When presented with a puzzle 🧩, some organisms are capable of discovering the solution to the problem without having the proper reinforcements to guide them to the solution. This is known as insight learning. Insight learning is sometimes referred to as the “a-ha moment” in which one suddenly realizes the solution to a problem💡

Edward Tolman found that rats did not show any noticeable improvement in getting through a maze in the absence of reinforcement. However, when reinforcement was provided, he found a marked decrease in time needed to finish the maze, suggesting that the rats knew the solution to the maze but did not express it behaviorally, meaning that they had a cognitive map of the maze. Tolman called this latent learning⏳


Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Not all types of stimuli will necessarily be conditioned with all types of responses. John Garcia found that people are more readily predisposed to be conditioned to taste if the corresponding response is internal. For example, the behavioral response of nausea 🤢 is more likely to be conditioned to a taste stimulus than an external stimulus, such as a sound 🔊 

Other research has shown that cognitive interpretations of conditioning also play a role. If a person believes that a particular stimulus, as opposed to the intended stimulus, causes the conditioning, then the intended stimulus that was intended to produce the conditioning will not occur.

Reinforcement Schedules

The probability of successful operative conditioning depends upon the way in which the reinforcements are presented.

When something is produced on a fixed schedule, it means that reinforcement occurs in a predictable, but not continuous, pattern. One knows when the next reinforcement will be given, assuming behaviors are performed. When reinforcement is given on a variable schedule, it means that reinforcement is not predictable, and it is not known when the next reinforcement will exactly occur. 

When reinforcement is given on an interval schedule, it means a certain amount of time must pass by, assuming the behavior is performed, before reinforcement is given. When reinforcement is given on a ratio schedule, it means a certain number of behaviors must be performed before the reinforcement is provided. 

Put together, this makes four different types of schedules of reinforcement. 




Real World Example 

Fixed Ratio

Rewarded after a specific number of responses #️⃣

You get paid $100 bucks after writing 2 columns. 

Variable Ratio

Rewarded after an average but unpredictable number of responses 

Put money in a slot machine.  It pays out after a number of plays, but the player is uncertain of the number because it varies. 

Fixed Interval 

Rewarded after a set amount of time has elapsed 📅

People who earn a monthly salary

Variable Interval 

Rewarded after an average but unpredictable amount of time has elapsed

Person checks email messages and is rewarded with a message at varying times.  

Table adapted from Open Source Textbook.

🎥Watch: AP PsychologyOperant Conditioning

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