Operant Conditioning: Shaping & Extinction – MCAT Psychology | MedSchoolCoach

Operant Conditioning: Shaping & Extinction

MCAT Psychology - Chapter 5- Section 1 - Learning - Associative Learning
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Sample MCAT Question - Operant Conditioning: Shaping & Extinction

Which of the following is an example of shaping?

a) A child teaches her dog how to fetch.

b) A researcher teaches pigeons to deliver letters by giving them treats for achieving incremental steps in the process.

c) A woman attempts to learn a dance by watching a video once.

d) A man gives treats to his cat every time it touches the door.

B is correct. Shaping is the process of guiding an organism to perform a complex behavior through many successive trials by reinforcing exact segments of behavior. Choice B is an example of this because the pigeons are rewarded with treats in incremental steps (choice B is correct). Choice A is incorrect because it does not specify how the dog learns how to fetch. Choice C is incorrect because the woman attempts to learn the steps all at once, rather than reinforcing segments of the dance. Choice D is incorrect because it does not specify whether the man reinforces other segments of opening a door. This choice only states that the man hopes the cat will be able to open the door eventually.

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Shaping & Extinction for the MCAT

Operant conditioning, a fundamental concept in psychology, offers valuable insights into how behavior is shaped and modified. Developed by influential psychologist B.F. Skinner, this theory focuses on the idea that behaviors are influenced by their consequences. Shaping, a technique derived from operant conditioning, involves reinforcing successive approximations of a desired behavior until the target behavior is achieved. This gradual process allows for the development of complex behaviors that may not occur naturally. On the other hand, extinction involves the reduction and eventual elimination of a previously reinforced behavior by withholding the reinforcement. This post will delve into the intricacies of shaping and extinction in behavior modification and elucidate the underlying mechanisms that contribute to their effectiveness.


Examples of operant conditioning often deal with rodents pressing levers. However, in nature, rodents normally don’t ever encounter levers. How exactly are we able to train rodents to participate in lever pressing? Similar to learning a complicated dance, an animal cannot learn how to perform a complex behavior all at once. Instead, learning complex behaviors is best served by breaking down the behavior into smaller pieces. Shaping is the process of guiding an organism to perform a complex behavior through many successive trials by reinforcing small segments of the behavior.


Let’s say you want to train a rodent to press a lever, so you place it into a container with a lever in one part of the cage. At first, the rodent will explore the cage randomly. The first step in training it to press a lever may be to reward it whenever the rodent turns to face the lever. After multiple applications of this positive stimulus, the frequency with which they decide to perform this behavior will likely increase. Next, we would halt rewards for performing this segment of the behavior. Instead, we will now reward the rodent whenever he faces the lever and moves toward the lever, until the rodent increases the frequency with which they perform this behavior. Lastly, we will reward the rodent only when it faces the lever, moves toward the lever, and touches the lever. When this behavior is reinforced, we will only reward the rodent when it faces the lever, approaches the lever, touches it, and physically moves the lever. Therefore, over successive trials, we will have taught the rodent segments of the complex behavior, which are then combined into the more complex behavior we actually desired.


Extinction refers to the loss of a conditioned behavior that occurs when a behavior is no longer associated with a reward or a punishment. In the case of lever pressing, if a rodent learned to press a lever for a food reward, withholding food whenever the rodent presses the lever would eventually lead to a reduction in the frequency with which the rodent presses the lever. The concept of extinction applies to both classically and operantly conditioned behaviors.

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