Currie Journal of Knowledge
Skinner’s Operant Conditioning
How to cite: McLaughlin, C (2020). Skinner's Operant Conditioning. Cascade Journal of Knowledge, volume 1 (1), 5:39.
Abstract: This module introduces the fundamental concept of Skinner’s Operant Conditioning and discusses its uses in the area of consumer behaviour. Specifically, the module discusses how to utilize positive reinforcement, negative reinforcement, and punishment in the field of marketing to influence consumer attitudes and behaviours.
Keywords: Operant Conditioning; Instrumental Conditioning; Consumer Behaviour; Marketing

Learning outcomes:

Transcribed copy of screencast

Hey everyone, welcome to our online lecture, which is all about Skinner’s operant or instrumental conditioning. This particular theory of learning has two names. And it’s one of the most important theories of learning that we discuss in consumer behavior, because it has a huge impact on people’s behavior. So, by the end of this module, you should be able to define what this type of conditioning is, you should be able to understand how it relates to marketing and use it to create your own marketing materials to influence your customers’ behavior.

So what exactly is operant conditioning? Well, basically, it at its core is using external stimuli, either positive or negative in order to modify behavior. So if we’re trying to encourage behavior, we might use positive reinforcement which basically means that we introduce a reward in order to encourage something, we could also use negative reinforcement, where we take away a negative external stimulus in order to try to encourage people to do something. Or we have punishment, which involves introducing a negative stimulus in order to discourage certain behavior.

So in the next few minutes, we’re going to get into more detail on all three of these forms of operant conditioning.

So first of all, there is positive reinforcement. If I want to encourage you to do something then every time you do that, I introduced a positive stimulus, and there are lots of different types of positive reinforcement in our advertising. In our marketing communications, loyalty cards are a classic example. Every time you make a purchase from me, you get points and those Points eventually will get you something for free or a discount or a special offer or something. And so I want to encourage you to continue to come back and purchase from me. And in order to do that, I provide these positive reinforcements, free stuff, these points, these, whatever, to try to encourage you to keep on doing what you’re doing. The other thing is, all the time in advertising, we see examples of people experiencing positive emotions, having a great time, reducing their debt, doing whatever, and all of these positive things happen because you purchased a brand and so they’re demonstrating positive reinforcement trying to get you to associate that if I do this, then I get all of these positive things in my life. And so that’s positive reinforcement.

Negative reinforcement is where I’m still trying to encourage you to do something and I’m doing that by taking away a negative stimulus. Now this negative stimulus is not a punishment, this negative stimulus is a normal part of your experience, but I’m going to take it away if you do what I want. So for example, in my own classes, sometimes my professors would say, if you do really well in the class, and you get an A, on all of the exams and assignments that we have, then you don’t have to write the final exam. And that’s an example of negative reinforcement. where an exam is not a punishment and exam is a normal part of taking a class, but I’ll take it away if you take the rest of the semester really seriously. Demonstrate your learning.

Now in advertising, negative reinforcement will often come in the form of if you buy now we’ll pay the Tax. Tax is not a punishment. Tax is just a normal part of a purchase. Or shipping, we’ll pay the shipping. Shipping is not a punishment. But if you purchase now, which is something we want you to do, we want you to encourage to do, then we’ll take away this negative stimulus of these additional fees. And so that’s an example of negative reinforcement in marketing.

Finally, I want to talk about punishment. Punishment is when you do something that I don’t want you to do, and so I introduced a negative stimulus. We’ve all experienced punishment in our life when we were growing up, I’m sure. Punishment can be the form of timeout, it could be lots of different forms.

Now in marketing, we don’t actually punish our customers. Don’t worry, I’m not encouraging that. But a lot of the time commercials will demonstrate the negative repercussions if you go with one of their competitors. For example, does this very famously. It demonstrates, Okay, you could end up in a dump if you don’t go through Realtors demonstrate, you could end up living next door to a motorcycle gang if you don’t use a realtor, etc, etc. And so that’s how we tend to use punishment in advertising and marketing – we demonstrate all the negative repercussions if they don’t purchase from us. So they’ll think about the punishment rather than actually experiencing it.

So that concludes our discussion of Skinner’s operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning. I hope you enjoyed it.

Caitlin McLaughlin, Ph.D.

Thompson Rivers University, Canada

Caitlin is a marketing instructor at Thompson Rivers University. She has taught Integrated Marketing Communications, Consumer Behaviour, Introduction to Marketing, Marketing Research, Services Marketing, and Brand Management (among others). Her research focuses on the use of brand communities in marketing.


Skinner, B. F. (1938). The Behaviour of organisms: An experimental analysis. New York: Appleton-Century.

Skinner, B. F. (1948). Superstition’ in the pigeon. Journal of Experimental Psychology, 38, 168-172.

Skinner, B. F. (1951). How to teach animals. Freeman.

Skinner, B. F. (1953). Science and human behaviour.


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