Operant conditioning, formulated by behaviorist B.F. Skinner, is one of those subjects fraught with misunderstanding, and even those of us who understand it sometimes misspeak, due largely to the uncommon use of common words.

The primary principle of operant conditioning is that when behavior is reinforced, it is more likely to be repeated and when behavior is punished, it is less likely to be repeated. The way we reinforce or punish is by adding or taking away stimuli.

  1. Positive Reinforcement means that something pleasant is added to encourage the desired behavior. Example: The horse is given a food treat when he responds correctly.
  2. Negative Reinforcement means that something unpleasant is subtracted to encourage the desired behavior. Example: Pressure is released when the horse complies with a request.
  3. Positive Punishment means that something unpleasant is added to discourage the undesired behavior. Example: A horse is spanked instantly when he kicks out under saddle.
  4. Negative Punishment means that something pleasant is subtracted to discourage unwanted behavior. Example: The trainer withholds a food treat that a horse wants.

These are called the four quadrants of operant conditioning. (Extinction is sometimes called the fifth “quadrant.” I’ll address that another time.)

Unfortunately, keeping all of this straight is next to impossible for most people, including me. The reason is simple. All four of the key words have narrower meanings than we usually give them. Positive means added (rather than good). Negative means subtracted (rather than bad). Reinforcing means rewarding (rather than strengthening) and punishing means deterring (rather than paying back).

These may seem like small distinctions but they can result in big misunderstandings. For example, I often hear trainers use the term "negative reinforcement" to mean creating an unpleasant consequence to a behavior. This, of course, is not what it means in the world of operant conditioning.

My advice is pretty straightforward. Use the principles of operant conditioning but be careful of the terms. They confuse more than they clarify. And when you hear someone else using them, remember, chances are very good that they are using them incorrectly. Better to clamp your hands over your ears and hum the theme to "Gilligan's Island," or at least think about something else until the moment passes. Like maybe lunch. More next time.