Operant Conditioning: The Hidden Forces that Shape Behavior (And How to Change Them).


In 1939, Hitler’s Nazi Germany launched an aerial bombing attack on Warsaw, Poland, that would trigger World War II. Shortly afterwards, the Allies retaliated by dropping bombs across Germany, but the vast majority of bombs failed to hit enemy targets.

As Nazi Germany continued to relentlessly bomb and destroy cities across Europe—destroying nearly 80 percent of Warsaw in the process—the Allies desperately sought out a solution to the problem of misguided bombs and missiles.

To solve this problem they turned to an unlikely source, Professor B. F. Skinner, a Harvard Professor obsessed with rats, pigeons and human behavior. Skinner had spent several years developing the concept of operant conditioning, a behavioral psychology technique used to control behavior by using rewards and punishments.

In 1941, after the Pearl Harbour attack against the United States, Skinner received funding from the National Defence Committee to develop the much needed guided missile. But instead of using humans to guide the missiles towards enemy targets, Skinner planned to recruit a different species to go to war: the pigeon.

During ‘Project Pigeon,’ Skinner used his method of operant conditioning to train a squadron of 64 pigeon pilots to guide missiles towards enemy targets with near perfection.

Unfortunately, within a year the Committee terminated ‘Project Pigeon’ and Skinner’s pigeons retired from military service. Skinner however, continued to refine his method of operant conditioning. In 1968, he was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Science and subsequently cemented his legacy as one of the most important psychologists of the twentieth century.

How did Skinner train pigeons to guide missiles, and how can we use operant conditioning to influence and change behavior?

operant conditioning

Image of pigeon pilot placed into guided missile.

The Science of Reinforcement

“Animals . . . are all beasts of burden, in a sense, made to carry a portion of our thoughts.”

—Henry Thoreau

In the 19th century, E.L.Thorndike, a prominent behavioral psychologist at the time, laid down the basic framework for a principle of behavioral psychology known as the law of effect. In short, the law of effect suggests that humans tend to repeat behaviors that produce satisfying results and avoid repeating behaviors associated with negative consequences.

Decades later, Skinner built upon the law of effect with a new concept known as reinforcement. Unlike his predecessors, Skinner argued that our behavior isn’t solely a response to external stimuli, rather it’s a by-product of consequences created by our immediate environment. In other words, our behavior is reinforced (or strengthened) by rewards and punishments.

In the book Science and Human Behavior (1953), Skinner defines the concept of operant conditioning via two categories: reinforcement and punishment.

Reinforcements are either positive or negative. A positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by giving something pleasurable. For example, Skinner trained pigeons to turn around in a full circle whenever a light was turned on, by feeding the pigeons each time they turned slightly.

A negative reinforcement strengthens a behavior by removing a painful or unpleasant problem. For example, the repeated behavior of swallowing painkillers is reinforced by its ability to alleviate pain.

operant conditioning reinforcement

Image credit wikipedia: Box73 b Curtis Neveu / CC)

Conversely, a punishment reduces the likelihood of repeating a behavior. A positive punishment discourages a behavior by delivering something unpleasant i.e. prison time for breaking the law, whilst a negative punishment discourages behavior by taking something pleasant away i.e reducing an employees bonus if they slack off at work.

Skinner also conducted experiments which demonstrated that behavior can be arranged over time through a “schedule of reinforcement.” In short, reinforcements and punishments can be varied based on quantity or timing.

Here are a few examples: a student rewarded with extra points for every five math problems solved, an employee rewarded with surprise bonuses based on performance, a parent rewarding a child with ice cream every 2 weeks.

In each of these examples, the predictability of reinforcement varies based on the quantity required to receive the reward or the time passed before the reward is received.

Using the method of operant conditioning (and his infamous “Skinner box”), Skinner trained rats to pull levers, pigeons to read and play ping-pong.

During ‘Project Pigeon,’ Skinner created a harness that prevented the pigeon from using its feet and wings, but left room for the head and neck to move freely. Each time the pigeon pecked at an image of the enemy target Skinner rewarded the pigeon with food.

The pigeons were so well trained, that even when the bird was placed right next to the loud sound of a shot pistol, the pigeon would keep pecking at the target with accuracy.

How to Use Operant Conditioning to Change Behavior

Whilst Skinner initially developed operant conditioning to change animal behavior, it has since been used to change human behavior in organizations, education, parenting, businesses, relationships and so on.

Here are a few examples of how you can use operant conditioning to motivate others around you and change your own behavior.

Leadership: Reward top performing employees with bonuses at random intervals or reward employees with a day off work every 6 weeks.

Marriage: Schedule a weekly date night at a different restaurant or a different activity each time.

Business: Reward a customer with a free month of service each time they refer your product to someone in their social network.

Health & Fitness: Catchup on your favorite podcasts and TV series, whilst exercising (this strategy is also known as temptation bundling).

Productivity and work performance: Gamify tasks by rewarding yourself for completing tasks and plotting your progress on a graph, or create leaderboards with colleagues. You can also use ‘stakes’ to motivate yourself to get things done.

Parenting: If your child doesn’t like to complete homework, but loves to watch TV shows, restrict access to TV shows until homework is completed.

Learning and Education: Skinner suggested that optimal learning occurs when a student or learner is led in a directed manner through the material by taking many small steps which are reinforced with rewards.

For example, after solving ten math problems with 60 percent accuracy, the student is rewarded in some way and then presented with a new set of more difficult problems. If they fail to meet this accuracy level, they’re presented with more problems at their current level. This way, the student learns based on their current level and only moves forward when the content is fully mastered.

Operant conditioning can also help you understand why you struggle to break bad habits. In general, bad habits tend to be positive reinforcements. As an example, multitasking between work and the web, sms messages or social media, creates a buildup of dopamine in your brain, which makes you feel good for a moment.

Other addictive behaviors tend to be negative reinforcements. For example, binge eating helps to temporarily “escape” stress and pain.

As an aside, operant conditioning can also reveal different ways you’re being manipulated on a daily basis. Manipulators are well versed in operant conditioning, and often use a combination of fear, praise, guilt tripping, explosive anger and verbal abuse, to control their victims.

In short, all our behaviors in one way or another are shaped by rewards and punishments within our environment, whether we’re aware of it or not.

Your Behavior Is Predetermined

“We believe in free will because we know about our behavior but not about its causes.”

— Jonathan Edwards

As humans we have a tendency to believe that we’re completely rational, and behaviors are within our control. But Skinner’s concept of operant conditioning suggests that the choices we make on a daily basis are primarily driven by our environment, not our free will.

Whilst we have the ability to observe behavior, we cannot see the hidden forces that shape our behavior. Operant conditioning is a useful framework that provides insights into why we do what we do, how we can influence others and how to change behavior.


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

Pinder, C.C. (1984) Work Motivation; Theory, Issues, and Applications. Foresman and Company, Glenview.

Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Thorndike, E. L. (1898). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. Psychological Monographs: General and Applied, 2(4), i-109.

Telegraph report on the Warsaw bombings during World War II (1939).