In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Operant Conditioning

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Data Sources
  • Applied Behavior Analysis
  • Conceptual and Philosophical Foundations
  • Social Issues and Culture
  • Methodology
  • Education
  • Behavioral Pharmacology and Substance Abuse
  • Biology and Behavior
  • Behavior Therapy
  • Organizational Behavior Management
  • Misconceptions and Responses

Psychology Operant Conditioning
Jesse Dallery, Brantley Jarvis, Allison Kurti
  • LAST REVIEWED: 23 August 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 23 August 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199828340-0043


The study of operant conditioning represents a natural-science approach to understanding the causes of goal-directed behavior. Operant behavior produces changes in the physical or social environment, and these consequences influence whether such behavior occurs in the future. Thus, operant behavior is selected by its consequences. The basic unit of analysis in the operant framework is the operant, or operant class, which is a class of activities that produces the same consequence. For example, an operant such as joke telling is shaped and maintained by positive social consequences (e.g., laughter) or extinguished by negative social consequences (e.g., silence). Selection of operant behavior is analogous to the selection of biological traits via natural selection. The environment (physical, social, cultural) selects behavior via the processes of reinforcement and punishment. Stimuli present when these processes occur become occasioning or discriminative stimuli for particular operants. More complex forms of learning, such as conceptual and symbolic behavior, are also considered to be forms of operant behavior. Whether simple or complex, operant behavior is always included within a three-term contingency: discriminative stimulus, operant behavior, and reinforcing or punishing consequence. The three-term contingency is deceptively simple, as the probabilities of occurrence represented by each term can vary over time. In addition, the under-represented role of verbal behavior further enriches and complicates the picture of human behavior. From its inception, the operant analysis has also included private behavior such as thoughts, feelings, and other aspects of the “inside story.” The operant framework has led to a number of extensions and applications to human affairs, including the treatment of developmental disorders, interventions for psychopathology, teaching technologies for classrooms, strategies to improve behavior in business and occupational settings, and approaches to reduce substance use and abuse. Although less empirical in nature, the operant framework has also been extended to explanations of cultural behavior and future threats posed by consumerism, nuclear proliferation, and other human rights and social justice issues. Operant conditioning has a long history of being mischaracterized, and several responses to these claims have appeared in the literature.


A variety of textbooks cover operant principles and applications. The textbooks here focus on general principles. For those new to the field, Johnston 2014 and Baum 2005 provide a good introduction to some of the philosophical and conceptual background of behavior analysis and are less focused on empirical findings. Schneider 2012 is geared toward a general audience, and it is also recommended for those new to the field and to anyone interested in behavior. Pierce and Cheney 2017 and Malott and Shane 2014 are good introductions to the empirical work and to basic concepts in the field. Catania 2013 and Mazur 2013 are a bit more advanced. Iversen and Lattal 1991 and Madden 2012 are the most advanced texts and recommended for graduate students in behavior analysis or allied disciplines. Skinner 1953 is recommended to anyone interested in behavior analysis or behaviorism more generally. The book covers basic principles, issues related to understanding feelings, thoughts, the self, and social influences on behavior.

  • Baum, W. B. 2005. Understanding behaviorism: Behavior, culture, and evolution. 2d ed. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

    A useful introduction to the conceptual roots of radical behaviorism. Includes sections on philosophy, the basic elements of an operant account (including verbal behavior), and extensions to relationships, government, and other cultural phenomena.

  • Catania, A. C. 2013. Learning. 5th ed. Cornwall-on-Hudson, NY: Sloan.

    This is one of several common undergraduate textbooks. Covers all of the basic principles and is organized into two sections: one that discusses learning without words and a second that discusses learning with words (verbal behavior).

  • Iversen, I. H., and K. A. Lattal, eds. 1991. Techniques in the behavioral and neural sciences: Experimental analysis of behavior (Parts 1 and 2). Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    This textbook is primarily geared toward graduate students in behavior analysis. The material is more complex than typical undergraduate texts.

  • Johnston, J. J. 2014. Radical behaviorism for ABA practitioners. New York: Sloan.

    This text is an accessible introduction to the core conceptual foundations of radical behaviorism, with an emphasis on the practical consequences of these foundations in applied contexts.

  • Madden, G. J., ed. 2012. APA handbook of behavior analysis. 2 vols. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

    This handbook is the most up-to-date and comprehensive account of behavior analysis. Volume 1 covers experimental and research methods in single-subject designs as well as major content areas in the experimental analysis of behavior. Volume 2 focuses entirely on translational research and areas of application.

  • Malott, R. W., and J. T. Shane. 2014. Principles of behavior. 7th ed. New York: Routledge.

    This is another common text for undergraduates.

  • Mazur, J. E. 2013. Learning and behavior. 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Prentice Hall.

    This is another standard text for undergraduate pedagogy. The book provides excellent analyses of the current state of knowledge in the field of learning and provides an interesting overview of unresolved empirical questions.

  • Pierce, W. D., and C. D. Cheney. 2017. Behavior analysis and learning. 6th ed. New York: Routledge.

    Yet another text for undergraduates. Covers all of the basic principles of behavior analysis, including sections on verbal behavior and selectionism at three levels of analysis (biological, behavioral, and cultural).

  • Schneider, S. M. 2012. The science of consequences: How they affect genes, change the brain, and impact our world. New York: Prometheus.

    This is a trade book geared toward a general audience. As such, it is a highly readable starting place for anyone interested in operant behavior and its broad implications.

  • Skinner, B. F. 1953. Science and human behavior. New York: Macmillan.

    This is one of Skinner’s major works. This book is more conceptual in nature, as the database for operant science was still in its infancy. Covers basic principles, including chapters on private behavior, motivation, thinking, the self, and culturally mediated sources of behavioral influence.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.