Operant conditioning is described in three phases that describe behaviors, the influences that precede them, and their results:
- what happens to influence a behavior--the antecedent or discriminative stimulus;
- the behavior itself, or operant response; and
- what happens as a result of the behavior--a consequence that reinforces the behavior, or an opposite consequence that punishes the behavior.
Discrimination describes what a person has learned from previous experience that will influence the operant response, or behavior that will take place. The learning that occurs as a consequence of this behavior, which may be reinforcing or punishing, will influence future behaviors in their discriminant phases; this shows the cyclic nature of the three-term contingency.
The consequence, or third component, can be either a reinforcement, which increases the likelihood of the behavior being repeated, or, conversely, punishment, which reduces the likelihood of a behavior being repeated.
Punishment and reinforcement can be either negative or positive:
- Positive reinforcement means a benefit is given, or in the case of money a mediating benefit called a secondary reinforcer is given, which has the same effect as a reinforcer.
- Negative reinforcement creates a benefit by removing something that is undesirable, or aversive. This is the effect of taking medicine. The reinforcement process is avoidance reconditioning.
- Positive punishment describes the adding of something undesirable, or aversive.
- Negative punishment is the removal of something beneficial as a consequence.
Variations in reinforcements will affect learning and responses, such as schedules of reinforcement that describe the effectiveness of the timing and occurance of reinforcement, and conditioned reinforcers, such as money, that mediate tangible reinforcements such as food and clothes.