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Interventions Based on Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is when a behavior is learned in response to the consequences of that behavior. For example, if a person gets a reward (the reinforcer) for completing a task (the operant behavior), they are more likely to complete that task in the future. By understanding the principles of operant conditioning, we can gain insights into how rewards and punishments shape our actions and influence our future behavior. Its power lies in its ability to shape behavior through the strategic use of reinforcers. Rewards vary widely and are dependent on individual preferences and context. For example, they can range from tangible rewards like gifts or incentives to intangible rewards like praise or recognition. 

The key is to identify and deliver meaningful and appealing reinforcers to the individual, thereby increasing the desired behavior's occurrence. Below are examples of therapeutic interventions that utilize principles of operant conditioning.

Interventions Based on Operant Conditioning


Shaping behavior is a controlled reinforcement process that encourages successive approximations of desired behaviors. Shaping involves rewarding desired behaviors and ignoring or punishing undesired behaviors. Over time, this reinforcement will lead to the individual exhibiting behaviors more often.

How Is Shaping Used In Daily Life?

Individuals use shaping to influence behavior change all the time. Consider how you might train your dog to sit. Once your dog consistently stands still, you reward it only when they sit down. Eventually, your dog will learn that sitting down is the behavior that gets rewarded, and they will start sitting down more often.

Another example is that you wish to develop a regular exercise routine. Rather than immediately expecting you to engage in a lengthy and intense workout, you can start by rewarding yourself for smaller steps toward your goal. Initially, you may reward yourself for putting on your exercise clothes or completing a short workout. Over time, you gradually increase the reward criteria, shaping the behavior until you reach your desired exercise routine.

Shaping is a powerful tool that can influence behavior change. It requires patience and consistency. Shaping involves reinforcing behaviors that are progressively closer to the desired outcome. By gradually raising the bar and providing reinforcement along the way, individuals are more likely to adopt behavior.

Premack Principle

The Premack Principle is when a frequently occurring behavior is used to reinforce a behavior that doesn’t happen often enough. Sometimes it is called “first this, then this” or “grandma’s rule.” The Premack principle says that if you do something more likely to happen (like eating your vegetables), you can do something less likely to happen (like watching TV). This principle states that behaviors more likely to lead to a desired outcome are more likely to be repeated. In other words, to increase a desired behavior, you must make it more likely. By leveraging the Premack Principle in daily life, individuals can increase their motivation and productivity by using activities they enjoy.

How Is The Premack Principle Used In Daily Life?

The Premack Principle is based on the idea that we are more likely to engage in activities that we find enjoyable. Therefore, linking an unpleasant or unwanted behavior with a more desirable activity can increase the likelihood of the undesirable behavior being replaced by the desired behavior.

An example of The Premack principle would be, “First do your homework, then you can watch TV.” In this example, TV is the behavior that occurs frequently and is used to reinforce the behavior of completing homework, which is not happening often enough. Another example is after studying for a specific period, you can take a break to play a video game, have a snack, or chat with a friend.

It's important to note that while The Premack Principle can be an effective motivator, it's essential to strike a balance and not rely solely on external rewards. Finding intrinsic motivation and deriving satisfaction from the activities is also crucial. 


Behavior chaining is a psychological concept focusing on the sequential arrangement of behaviors leading to a specific outcome. It views behavior as a series of linked actions, each serving as a cue or stimulus for the subsequent step. The concept was initially developed by behaviorist psychologists who studied the relationship between environmental triggers, individual actions, and their consequences. Behavior chaining focuses on identifying and breaking down complex behaviors into smaller, manageable steps. This process allows individuals to recognize the actions contributing to a desired outcome and determine the most effective way to achieve it. From building new habits to overcoming challenges, behavior chaining provides a structured approach to breaking down complex behaviors into manageable steps.

How Is Shaping Used In Daily Life?

When learning new skills, behavior chaining helps individuals grasp the sequential order of actions required to master a particular task. By systematically practicing each step, individuals progress toward proficiency. For example, someone learning to drive may start by familiarizing themselves with the vehicle's controls, then practice basic maneuvers, and finally venture onto more complex driving scenarios.

Another example of behavior chaining can be seen when we modify existing behaviors by identifying antecedents and consequences. Individuals can gradually reshape their behavior by replacing maladaptive actions with adaptive ones and adjusting the environmental cues. An example of behavior modification is when someone is trying to quit smoking. They may identify triggers, such as stress, and replace smoking with healthier coping mechanisms when stressed.


In conclusion, the principles of operant conditioning, namely shaping, the Premack Principle, and behavior chaining, offer valuable insights into understanding and influencing behavior. Shaping allows for the gradual development and refinement of desired behaviors by reinforcing successive approximations. The Premack Principle provides a powerful tool for motivation and productivity by utilizing preferred activities as rewards for engaging in less preferred ones. On the other hand, behavior chaining helps break down complex behaviors into manageable steps, enabling individuals to achieve their goals effectively. By harnessing these principles, mental health professionals can assist clients in shaping behaviors, increasing motivation, and creating a structured path toward positive change. Whether cultivating new habits, modifying existing behaviors, or acquiring new skills, operant conditioning principles provide a framework for understanding and shaping human behavior, ultimately empowering us to thrive and reach our full potential.

Additional Resources on Operant Conditioning Interventions


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