In operant conditioning, the operant is any behavior that a subject performs on their environment. The subject has control over these behaviors. Respondents, on the other hand, are automatic reflexes, like jumping away from a hot stovetop.
As stated earlier, the concepts of reinforcement and punishment are central to Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning. Reinforcement is any event that promotes the preceding behavior. Punishment is meant to discourage the preceding behavior.
You might have heard of terms like positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. These phrases are commonly used, and just as commonly misused. For example, when students behave well in class, they may receive a prize or a gold star. This has the goal of reinforcing their good behavior and is known as positive reinforcement.
Negative reinforcement, on the other hand, doesn’t have to be unpleasant to the student. Let’s say a teacher removes a reinforcement in response to good behavior. This could mean exempting the student from clean-up duties or letting them skip an assignment. This type of reinforcement is meant to increase positive behavior by taking something away instead of giving something to the student. It’s subtractive and therefore called negative reinforcement.
It follows then that there are also positive and negative punishments in operant conditioning.
Positive punishment is additive, in that it punishes bad behavior with a new, unpleasant stimulus. To take our classroom example. This might include assigning extra homework to a poorly behaved student. A negative punishment, on the other hand, is subtractive, like taking recess time away from an unruly pupil.
Skinner would go on to propose radical behaviorism, in which all psychological processes were deemed responses to environmental stimuli and reinforcement. Though many contemporary behaviorists aren’t as extreme in their views, Skinner’s work contributes heavily to modern behaviorist learning theory.