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Operant Conditioning: ABA History

Operant conditioning, also referred to as instrumental conditioning, is a method of associative learning that focuses on the strength of behavior and how it is modified through reinforcement (positive/negative) or punishment. This theory is used today by the world’s top psychologists and behaviorists but also by everyday individuals. Operant conditioning can be used on adults, children, and even animals to obtain “rewards” and avoid punishment. Its use is prevalent in Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy.

The History of Operant Conditioning


Operant conditioning dates back to the beginning of twentieth-century psychology. Its foundation is rooted in the studies conducted by Edward L. Thorndike, who researched and developed the “Law of Effect.” 


The Law of Effect, as defined by the American Psychology Association, is the “principle that consequences of behavior act to modify the future probability of occurrence of that behavior.” This concept laid the original foundation for positive reinforcement and punishment related to operant conditioning within developmental, educational, and behavioral psychology. Thorndike was one of the original psychologists to lay the groundwork for what would later be referred to as “Behaviorism.”


John B. Watson’s, the father of behaviorism, work focused on outward and external behaviors rather than the traditional psychological focus of internal emotions.  


His studies were further explored at Yale, by Clark Hull, and at Iowa, by Kenneth Speech. These two psychologists fell into the category of neobehaviorists. They studied the mathematical laws that surround learned behavior. 


The last psychologist in our history is B.F. Skinner, founder the theory of operant conditioning. Skinner disagreed with neobehaviorism and sought other explanations for external behaviors and how they could be reinforced or modified. 


Skinner’s theory hinged on Watson’s theories within behavioral psychology. That internal thoughts and motivations did not always explain behaviors. Instead, behaviorists should look only at the external influences and objective observations of one’s environment and the possible causes of their behavior. Skinner took Watson’s original concept of behaviorism and layered the idea of consequences on top. Skinner was focused on how the consequences of people’s actions played a role in their future behavior. This is where reinforcement and punishment come into play. 


Skinner’s operant conditioning went on to take the world of psychology by storm in the early 20th century and is still practiced today in several subfields within psychology and behaviorism. For example, the field of Applied Behavior Analysis (ABA) therapy utilizes early behaviorist theories in its daily clinical work. 

Fundamentals of Operant Conditioning

Understanding People


Operant conditioning theory believes the best way to understand people is through their behaviors because they are observable. It is a way to quantify data, analyze it, track it, and formulate strategies to change or modify it. In fields like ABA, data is the cornerstone of how providers understand and help their clients. ABA clinicians rely on observable data to understand their clients, what they need, and what might help them and use clinical data to chart progress.


Reinforcement of Good Behavior


Not every positive example of behavior needs to be modified, but it needs to be reinforced to happen more often. Operant conditioning utilizes positive and negative reinforcements to “condition” someone to do more or less of any given behavior. It is an excellent tool for ABA therapists to use with their clients–usually individuals on the autism spectrum.


Diminishing Bad Behavior


Skinner believed that through reinforcements and punishments, negative or disruptive behavior could be eliminated or unlearned. That the reason an individual acts the way they do is modifiable. In ABA therapy, a clinician might use operant conditioning strategies to steer their client away from disruptive tendencies.


How Environment Impacts Behavior


Operant conditioning also functions under the idea that one’s environment directly correlates to how one behaves. A great example of this in ABA therapy is when a child starts to act disruptively in a specific class or environment but not another. The environment of the first-class elicits a behavior; environmental considerations may need to be addressed within a curriculum plan.


How Behaviors are Learned


Operant conditioning gives clinicians and psychologists insight into how behaviors are learned. Skinner understood external behaviors through the lens that they are learned and do not develop on their own. A negative behavior might have started when a child began to associate something with feeling bad or negative.


Reinforcement and Punishment


The idea of reinforcement and punishment are foundational to the practice of operant conditioning. For example, an individual will want to work harder at their job if they get great feedback from their employer (positive reinforcement). Conversely, that same individual will not want to do a good job if their hard work goes unrewarded (negative reinforcement). The same is true for a child in school–positive feedback related to a behavior will motivate them. Operant conditioning also teaches the opposite: punishment or negative feedback for a bad job at work or school will prevent that kind of work from being repeated in the future.


Ultimately, operant conditioning follows the development of behaviors over time, how they are reinforced, how they might be punished, and how they can change in the right environment.

Real-World Examples of Operant Conditioning

As an ABA professional you probably can name numerous examples of operant conditioning from your curriculums, sessions, and training. However, do you see it in your everyday life? We bet you do! Some real-world examples of operant conditioning could include: 


  1. A school bell to signal the end of class
  2. Incentives at work to produce better outcomes
  3. Coupons that incentivize people to shop at a store (and keep coming back)
  4. Finding money on the street and going back to that street time and time again. 
  5. Sitting through heavy traffic and avoiding that route in the future
  6. A bonus at work for a job well done that makes you want to try to get another
  7. Working for a “good grade” at school
  8. Decreasing classroom interruptions when earning stars on an achievement board


Operant conditioning exists in every facet of life. 

The Science of Operant Conditioning and ABA Therapy

The field of applied behavior analysis is built upon the behaviorist theories of B.F. Skinner. Today, ABA providers utilize evidence-based interventions to help children who operate on the autism spectrum. ABA is a scientific technique that focuses on applying evidence-based approaches using operant conditioning to help children change behavior as well as learn social, communicational, and educational skills that help them achieve success in their personal and professional lives. 


Clinical Applications in ABA Therapy


Operant conditioning in the clinical ABA setting might look like: 


  1. Giving a child a high five for completing a successful discrimination trial 
  2. Removing attention from disruptive behaviors
  3. Letting them engage in their interests after completing an exercise
  4. A treat or smile after a correct answer
  5. A timer to let them know snack time is over
  6. Positive non-verbal cues for a job well done


There are endless ways that operant conditioning is used in the clinical ABA setting. Providers rely on positive/negative reinforcement to help their clients learn and develop their skills as well as steer away from negative behaviors. 


The Value of ABA Data Collection


Data collection, operant conditioning, and ABA therapy all work hand-in-hand. ABA providers cannot quantify and track how their clients are progressing during sessions without data. Operant conditioning gives therapists a way to quantify data measurably, analyze it, and track it over time. 


ABA therapists need data collection tools that enable them to effectively and efficiently collect, analyze, and track data throughout their time with their clients. Sometimes this means collecting data with a pen and paper or using a spreadsheet. Most clinicians use an automated software tool such as Catalyst, which integrates with AccuPoint’s practice management software. With a quality software solution, providers can easily collect and understand their data as it is produced. 


To learn more about an ABA data collection tool that can simplify how your organization manages its data on operant conditioning and client progress, schedule a call below. 



American Psychology Association. (2020). The Law of Effect. APA Dictionary of Psychology.


Amsel, A. (1989). Behaviorism, Neobehaviorism, and Cognitivism in Learning Theory. Historical And Contemporary Perspectives. (2014). Edward Thorndike.


New World Encyclopedia. (n.d.). John B.Watson. New World Encyclopedia.

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