An Outline of The Four Quadrants of Operant Conditioning

Niki Tudge Copyright 2009


There are four types of operant learning, defined as such because the behavior operates on the environment.  Two of the quadrants of operant conditioning strengthen behaviors, referred to as reinforcements. The other two of the operant conditioning quadrants weaken behavior, referred to as punishments. The quadrants are referred to as a negative reinforcement, positive reinforcement, negative punishment and positive punishment.  The terms positive and negative do not describe the consequence, they indicate whether a stimulus, has been added (positive) or subtracted (negative) to increase or weaken the preceding behavior (Chance 2008 p 126).


Both positive and negative reinforcement increase the strength of the behavior due to its consequence.  With positive reinforcement the behavior is followed by the appearance of or an increase in the intensity of a stimulus. The stimulus is called a positive reinforcement as it is something the subject seeks out therefore it reinforcers the behavior that precedes it.  With negative reinforcement the behavior is strengthened by the subject’s ability to avoid or escape an aversive stimulus, thus negative reinforcement is sometimes referred to as escape-avoidance learning (Chance 2008 p 129). An experience must have three characteristics to qualify as reinforcement.  The behavior must have a consequence, the behavior must increase in strength and the increase in strength must be a result of the consequence (Chance 2008 p 127).


As behavior is the function of its consequences and whereas reinforcement strengthens the likelihood of a behavior then punishments reduce the strength of the behavior. Punishers are aversives and something a subject works to avoid. When an aversive event is added to a situation then positive punishment has taken place. Negative punishment subtracts something from the situation, like privileges, and is sometimes called penalty training.  Experiences must have three characteristics to qualify as punishment. First, the behavior must have a consequence, second the behavior must decrease in strength and finally the reduction in strength must be a result of the consequence (Chance 2008 p 208).


Chance, P. (2008) Learning and Behavior, Wadsworth Cengage Learning

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