Operant conditioning is a mechanism thought by many liberal psychologists to explain voluntary behavior in humans and animals. Operant conditioning is based on the idea that behavior depends on its anticipated consequences. A behavior that has desirable consequences tends to be repeated, whereas a behavior that has aversive consequences is unlikely to be repeated. The consequences of behavior are referred to as operants. Operants include reinforcers and punishers. A reinforcer leads to an increase in behavior, while a punisher leads to a decrease. Operants can be either positive or negative. An operant is positive when a desirable or aversive consequence is added, and negative when a desirable or aversive consequence is removed. The four types of operants thus include:
Positive Reinforcement occurs when a desired consequence leads to an increase in behavior. This is also referred to as reward. For example, if a student achieves good grades by studying hard, he is likely to receive praise from his teachers and parents. If the praise encourages the student to continue to study hard, it is positively reinforcing his behavior.
Negative Reinforcement occurs when the removal of something aversive increases behavior. Medication is often negatively reinforcing. A person with a headache may take aspirin to feel better. If the medication relieves the person's headache, it is negatively reinforcing, and she is likely to take aspirin again the next time.
Positive Punishment occurs when something aversive leads to a decrease in behavior. A student who talks during class may be required to stay after class and write an essay on the importance of paying attention. If this leads to better behavior in future classes, the essay is a positive punisher.
Negative Punishment occurs when a behavior is reduced by taking away something desirable. For example, a parent who takes away her child's allowance or places him on restriction for misbehavior is using negative punishment if the result is that misbehavior is reduced.
Some operants can be placed in multiple categories. For example, in addition to positive punishment, requiring a student to stay after class to write an essay may also serve as negative punishment by removing the opportunity for the student to spend time with friends.
The term was coined by psychologist B F Skinner in his 1938 book "The Beahavior of Organisms: an Experimental Analysis". His 1948 paper, "Superstition in the Pigeon", is a favourite of atheists because Skinner claims to have used positive reinforcement to teach pigeons how to follow meaningless rituals in expectation of reward.
Conservatives should treat the idea of operant conditioning with caution. It implies that there is no such thing as Free will because our choices are determined by what has gone before. Some of the operant condition occurs at an evolutionary biological level, which is deeply rooted in Darwinism. On an everyday level, it suggests people cannot be held morally responsible for their actions because, again, their choices are determined by their previous experiences.