Money, money, money

Image courtesy of SHAUN W.

Broke undergrads

The chance to earn a few extra bucks is enough for many first year undergrads to sign up in their droves as subjects for psychological experiments. Consequently, they are one of the most studied groups of people on the planet. They are a reasonably captive audience, interested in themselves and, happily, perpetually broke. While on one hand this is good news for experimenters, on the other, it should cause parents to add the “And what experiments have you participated in this semester?” question to their list.

Naturally, it will come as no surprise that this happens. After all, most of us are well aware of what people will do for money and, in this case, psychological experiments are generally reasonably straightforward, usually painless, and in abundant supply. And there may not be a limit to how many you can do. By contrast, once you’ve sold a kidney, well, options to repeat are pretty limited.

But money is just one way of influencing behavior, and there are plenty more. In a previous post we looked at classical conditioning, using examples of Superman and the famous dogs of Ivan Pavlov. It’s a great method, and a truly famous effort, but has its shortcomings.  This is where we meet Operant Conditioning.

Now don’t be intimidated by the language (every discipline has its own jargon!), because you’ll be familiar with some of this already. What we’re going to do is unpack this over a couple of posts and then follow up with some thinking around motivation. Ok?

Operant conditioning

Operant conditioning was developed by BF Skinner, and so is sometimes called Skinnerian conditioning. It’s added huge amounts to the field of learning and behavior change, and contributed a number of terms to common usage, many of which you’ll know. He’s responsible for the terms Positive Reinforcement and Negative Reinforcement for example.

Important Note

Before we go any further, and even though we’ll cover it later, let me say it here now because it usually takes at least a couple of times to get it through…

Negative Reinforcement IS NOT Punishment

What’s operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning deals with how voluntary behavior is modified. This separates it from classical conditioning which focuses on involuntary behavior (such as salivating). In operant conditioning, behavior is changed or maintained by what happens to the behavior afterwards – its consequences. With classical conditioning, we change things before the behavior to shape it.

If we go back to the money thing, you can see straight off how wages are an operant conditioning technique. They’re after the fact, occur as a consequence of what I did, and help change or maintain my behavior. In this case, Skinner would call money a reinforcer, as it has the power to maintain or change my behavior. The two great behavior elements are these: Reinforcement and Punishment. Each comes in two great flavours: Positive and Negative.

Important Note

Before we go any further, and even though we’ll cover it later, let me say it here now because it usually takes at least a couple of times to get it through…

Negative Reinforcement IS NOT Punishment

Using terms

When we use these terms, and in this context, be careful to note that people (or animals) aren’t reinforced or punished, it is the behavior that we’re talking about. So we talk about reinforcing a behavior or punishing a behavior. Because there are two elements, each of which has two flavours, we have four possible outcomes.

  1. Positive Reinforcement
  2. Negative Reinforcement
  3. Positive Punishment
  4. Negative Punishment

Ok, so negative reinforcement is different from punishment then. Reinforcement, as the term implies, means to strengthen. So reinforcement, both positive and negative, is designed to strengthen a behavior. In other words, reinforcement is applied to a behavior to increase the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.

By contrast, punishment is the opposite. So punishment, both positive and negative, is designed to weaken a behavior. In other words, punishment is applied to a behaviour to decrease the likelihood of that behavior occurring again.

Reinforcers strengthen behavior

Punishments weaken behavior

All right then. It’s really important that you get the difference between reinforcement and punishment, and understand that negative reinforcement is different from punishment. Key to this is how the words are used.

Here, in this narrow frame of reference, positive doesn’t mean ‘good’ or ‘pleasant’, and negative doesn’t mean ‘bad’ or ‘unpleasant’. Positive means adding or gaining something, and negative means subtracting or losing something.

There’s one last thing to add, and then we’re going to let this sink in for a couple of days before we start to play with it a little. Feel free to re-read it and bed in the concepts.


Extinction is when nothing happens after a behavior – there are no consequences. This behavior tends to die off because there is no consequence. If you take a behavior that has previously been reinforced, and then remove all consequence, the behavior will go through an extinction phase and die off, hence the word extinction. All up then, five options: 2 reinforcements, 2 punishments, 1 extinction.

So here’s the take home bit

Operant conditioning is everywhere and, over the next couple of posts, we’ll look more closely at how it works in practice. In the meantime, make sure you get the basics right, and then have a look around to see if you can spot examples of operant conditioning at work. This is especially interesting if you’re a manager, teacher, or parent.

Once you’ve identified conditioning at play, then look carefully to see what, exactly, is being conditioned. It might surprise you!

You might also want to think about situations where it could be used to bring about change, such as with students or employees.

Impressive words to drop into the morning coffee chat

Positive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, Negative Punishment, Extinction


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About brendonbclark

Hi, I’m Brendon, but people usually call me B. I’ve a Masters degree in psychology, postgraduate qualification in mental health, and qualifications in counselling, professional supervision and adult education. I consult, speak and blog. Join me, you can subscribe for free.
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