Individual Differences


Operant Conditioning & Personality

Last updated:
29 Sep 2003

Instrumental conditioning is a second form of conditioning that influences personality. Instrumental conditioning relies on the law of effect (postulated by Thorndike back in 1898):

  • If a behaviour results in a MORE satisfying state of affairs you’re more likely to do it again.

  • If a behaviour results in a LESS satisfying state of affairs you’re LESS likely to do it again.

Instrumental conditioning is seen as more active than the passive classical conditioning. People are seen to ACT UPON their environment and behaviour is then shaped by the response the behaviour receives. Responses leading to an increased state of satisfaction are repeated versus responses leading to a state of dissatisfaction will decrease the response (Thorndike’s Law of Effect).

B. F. Skinner (1938) - a radical behaviourist - was interested in the way an animal learns to operate in its world in such a way as to change it. To the animal’s advantage. It is therefore the consequence of the operant behaviour that produces reinforcement.

Skinner created the famous Skinner box. The box contains a bar and a chute for delivery of food pellets. Skinner placed a pigeon in the box and it starts to dance around until it hits the bar and gets food. It begins to hit the bar more and more as its hitting behaviour is reinforced by the reward of food.

Skinner argued that psychoanalytic and personality structures cannot be operationally defined and measure so why both measuring/studying them? Just concentrate on environmental conditions. The focus is on environmental determinism. People’s internal dispositions, the biological inheritance and processes, and the unconscious don’t matter.

Reinforcers and Punishers

Positive Reinforcement   ==>   Increases Positive consequences     ==>   Increases Behaviour

Negative Reinforcement    ==>   Decreases Negative consequences     ==>   Increases Behaviour

Positive Punishment    ==>   Increases Negative consequences     ==>   Decreases Behaviour

Negative Punishment        ==>   Decreases Positive consequences     ==>   Decreases Behaviour    

The term REFINFORCER came to be used rather than the initial “satisfying state of affairs”. A reinforcer is anything that strengthens a tendency to behave in a particular way (food satisfies hunger so you eat; money reinforces the likelihood that you’ll keep working; a child will behave well overtime because mum and dad approve. These reinforcers all use POSITIVE REINFORCEMENT (i.e. they add something good). A reinforcer could also use NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT i.e something BAD could be taken away making the behaviour MORE likley to occur.

The term PUNISHER refers to unpleasant or aversive outcomes: punishers reduce the likelihood of doing the behaviour that came before them. Could be child being reprimanded for performing a behaviour and making child less likely to do the behaviour. This is negative reinforcement.There’s controversy over how well punishers work.

The likelihood of a behaviour will be increased by: 

  • positive reinforcement (adding something pleasant) OR

  • negative reinforcement (turning of/removing something unpleasant)

The likelihood of a behaviour will be decreased by:

  • positive punishment (adding something unpleasant) OR

  • negative punishment (turning off/removing something pleasant)

Essentially, our behavioural tendencies are governed by the environment are shaped by past experiences in the form of rewards and punishments.

Advanced Instrumental Conditioning Concepts

  • Discrimination & Generalization

  • Extinction

  • Shaping - ‘successive approximation’

  • Schedules of Reinforcement – different schedules of reinforcement lead to different behavioural tendencies across time

As with Classical Conditioning, discriminination, generalization & extinction occur in Operant Conditioning.

Discrimination still means being able to discriminate between stimuli i.e. responding differently in the presence of DIFFERENT stimuli, but here the difference in response is caused by variations in prior reinforcement. So for example a DIFFERENCE develops because a certain stimulus is present whenever a behaviour is followed by a reinforcer BUT when the stimulus is absent , the behaviour is NEVER followed by a reinforcer. e.g. I’m not a great Monty Python fan but my husband is and so too is one of my daughters. When she talks Monty Python to me she never gets much response but she does from her dad. So these days she basically only talks about Monty Python to her dad.

So the presence or absence of dad gains an influence over whether the behaviour takes place. So dad becomes a “cue” for the behaviour. Even very small differences in stimuli can result in different behaviours. A clock showing 1200 means it’s time to knock off work whereas when it shows 1300 it’s time to come back.

Generalization allows for continuity in behaviour. It allows you to respond automatically in new settings and with new people because of the SIMILARITIES with prior situations.

Extinction occurs when a behaviour that once led to a reinforcer doesn’t any longer. So over time the behaviour drops off.

Schedules of reinforcement: Of course reinforcements in real life don’t occur every time a behaviour occurs. “Different schedules of reinforcement lead to different behavioural tendencies across time”. Reinforcement can of course be CONTINUOUS i.e. the behaviour is followed by a reinforcer every single time. Or PARTIAL: the behaviour is not reinforced EVERY time; it can be at a variable ratio, a fixed ratio, a variable interval, or a fixed interval.

  • Ratio = reinforcer after number of OCCURENCES of the behaviour

  • Interval = reinforcer after period of time that the behaviour has occurred

  • Variable Interval, Fixed interval, Fixed ratio, Variable ratio (THE BEST) e.g. GAMBLING

Go to more information about Schedules of Reinforcement.

Personality Change

Plan intervention schedule:

  • e.g. systematic desensitization

  • e.g. counterconditioning

  • e.g. aversion therapy

There appears to be no doubt that some types of our behaviour are caused by learning - and this is demonstrated in clinical practice by some of our therapies of systematic desensitisation and graded exposure which are all based on learning theories - designed to cause extinction of certain behaviours i.e. unlearning.

Counter conditioning: systematic desensitisation (Wolpe) In this form of treatment the person learns that previously anxiety provoking stimuli now are associated with relaxation (so a DIFFERENT emotion is conditioned) e.g. phobias (the idea being that the phobia for say dogs occurred because the person felt intense fear in the presence of a dog one time and this previously neutral stimulus became linked with anxiety via classical conditioning). The individual is first taught how to relax and then taken through an anxiety hierarchy from the least threatening (picture of a dog) to most threatening (patting a dog).

Behaviour modification through contingency management: desired behaviours are reinforced and undesired behaviours are punished eg token economies (instrumental conditioning used in institutions). People given tokens for socially desirable behaviour.

Aversion therapy: pairing an unpleasant stimulus with undesirable responses eg electric shock