Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement & Punishment- MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement & Punishment

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 5- Section 1 - Learning - Associative Learning
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Sample MCAT Question - Operant Conditioning: Reinforcement & Punishment

B.F. Skinner’s work does NOT demonstrate which of the following principles?

a) An animal can learn through the pairing of a conditioned stimulus and a behavior.

b) An animal can learn through the pairing of a unconditioned stimulus and a behavior.

c) An animal can learn through the pairing of a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus.

d) An animal can learn through the pairing of a reinforcer and a behavior.

C is correct. B.F. Skinner is well known for his work on operant conditioning, which is learning based on the consequence of behavior. For example, the pairing of a reinforcer and a behavior can strengthen or increase the frequency of that behavior (choice D is incorrect). Two concepts of operant conditioning are primary and secondary reinforcement. Primary reinforcement is the use of a unconditioned stimulus to reinforce a behavior (choice B is incorrect). Secondary reinforcement is the use of a conditioned stimulus to reinforce a behavior (choice A is incorrect). Choice C describes classical conditioning, which was not demonstrated by Skinner’s work. Classical conditioning is highlighted by Pavlov’s famous dog experiment, in which he trained dogs to salivate (i.e. expect food) in response to a bell by pairing the bell (neutral stimulus) with food (unconditioned stimulus). Therefore, choice C is correct.

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Operant Conditioning for the MCAT

Operant conditioning is a fundamental concept in psychology that explores how behavior is shaped and modified through the use of reinforcement and punishment. Developed by renowned psychologist B.F. Skinner, this theory delves into the idea that behaviors are more likely to occur or be suppressed based on their consequences. 


Reinforcement involves providing rewards or positive outcomes to strengthen desired behaviors, while punishment aims to discourage or diminish undesirable behaviors by introducing negative consequences. By understanding the principles of operant conditioning, researchers, educators, and individuals alike can gain valuable insights into the mechanisms behind behavior change and utilize effective strategies to foster positive habits or deter unwanted actions. This article will discuss operant conditioning for the MCAT, with a particular focus on the concepts of reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcement in Operant Conditioning

Reinforcement is an operant conditioning technique of using stimuli, or reward, to strengthen or increase the frequency of a desired behavior. There are several types of reinforcement. 


First, positive reinforcement is when a positive stimulus is added after a desired behavior takes place, rewarding that behavior. For example, a student is given a cookie after they receive a good grade on an exam, motivating them to do well on the next exam. 


Next, negative reinforcement is when a negative stimulus is removed after a desired behavior takes place. For example, after a child gets straight A’s in school, their parents decrease the amount of chores the child has to do on the weekends. In response, the child continues to study well in hopes of decreasing the amount of chores they must do. 


Put simply, reinforcement is used to increase the frequency of a behavior. Positive reinforcement is the addition of a desirable stimulus, while negative reinforcement is the removal of a negative stimulus.


Reinforcement can also be subcategorized as primary and secondary (conditional) reinforcement. In primary reinforcement, an unconditioned, innately motivating stimulus is used as the reinforcer. Remember, an unconditioned stimulus is one that an animal responds to innately and does not require teaching. For example, food is a positive stimulus with an innate response, so it is a primary reinforcer. This is different from conditional or secondary reinforcement, where a conditioned, learned stimulus is used as the reinforcer. A conditioned stimulus is one that an animal has acquired a conditioned response to through classical conditioning. For example, when a student gets a good grade, you can reward the student with money. Money is just paper which is not intrinsically rewarding. However, it is seen as rewarding because the student has learned that it can be used to purchase innately rewarding things (such as food).

Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Previously, we noted that one form of operant conditioning is reinforcement. Recall that in reinforcement, we attempt to increase the frequency of an animal’s behavior by adding a rewarding stimulus or removing a negative stimulus. Punishment is the opposite, in which we intend to weaken or decrease the frequency of a behavior.


Punishment can either be positive punishment or negative punishment. Positive punishment occurs when a negative stimulus is added after an undesired behavior is performed. For example, a student who gets a bad grade on an exam is punished by being assigned extra homework. The addition of a negative stimulus will likely make the student less inclined toward behavior that promotes bad grades. If the positive punishment is successful, the frequency with which they get bad grades will decrease. Negative punishment occurs when you remove a positive stimulus after an undesirable behavior is performed. For example, when a student gets a bad grade, and their parents take away their favorite toys. In both cases of punishment, we intend for the frequency of the undesired behavior to decrease. The difference is that in positive punishment an undesirable stimulus is added and in negative punishment a desirable stimulus is removed.


Punishment can also be categorized into primary and secondary punishment. Primary punishment is the use of an unconditioned, naturally undesirable stimulus as the punisher. For example, if a student gets a bad grade, their parents might use corporal punishment. If the student is spanked, they will experience pain, which is innately considered negative. Conditional or secondary punishment uses a conditioned stimulus as the punisher. For example, if someone is speeding on the highway, they will get a speeding ticket. A person might associate a speeding ticket with a fine or trouble which they want to avoid. As a result, the assignment of a ticket might lead to a reduced frequency of speeding.

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