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What are the four quadrants of operant conditioning?

In operant conditioning, an animal learner discovers that his behavior has certain consequences. Consequences can make behavior more likely or less likely to occur again...

Casey Lomonaco  |  May 10th 2010


In operant conditioning, an animal learner discovers that his behavior has certain consequences. Consequences can make behavior more likely or less likely to occur again in the future. There are four main consequences to any given behavior; positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement.

Let’s review the terms involved:

Positive: something is added (+)

Negative: something is removed (-)

Punishment: decreases behavior

Reinforcement: increases behavior

Positive Punishment – In positive punishment, a trainer adds a stimulus which decreases behavior. This can be a verbal or physical correction, or anything that the animal will work to avoid. For a sensitive dog, even a hard stare can function as a powerful aversive. Your dog pees on the rug, you rub his nose in it. Your dog chases a deer, and receives an electric shock.

By definition, a punisher must decrease the frequency of behavior. If you repeatedly shout at your dog for getting in the garbage and he continues the behavior, the shouting then has not functioned as a punisher – it has not decreased the behavior. In this case, the shouting is simply nagging.

Negative Punishment – In negative punishment, the trainer removes a stimulus to decrease the frequency of behavior. This usually means removing the dog’s access to something he likes or something he wants to do. A common example of a negative punishment is a time out or “grounding”- you remove attention or access to something pleasurable. You may stop dead in your tracks when the leash goes tight, to reduce the frequency of pulling on the leash. You may take a toy away from a young child temporarily if he is quarreling over the toy with another child to teach him that “resource guarding” doesn’t pay.

Positive reinforcement – In positive reinforcement, the trainer adds something to increase the frequency of behavior. This means giving the learner something he wants in exchange for a behavior you want. Your dog sits, you give him a cookie. He drops a ball at your feet, you throw it for him again. Your child makes the honor roll, she gets a bonus in her allowance. You go to work, you receive a paycheck.