Operant Learning (Quadrants) Illustrated by Examples

Many thanks to Ruth Byrn, Marge Rogers, and Susan Friedman for their generous assistance with the movie.

Sable dog is play-biting at a stream of water from a garden hose. She is all wet.
Does Summer’s weave behavior get reinforced by a spray of water?

In the terminology of behavior science, positive does not always mean good. Actually it never means good. Likewise, negative does not mean bad. Also, reinforcement is not always about giving the dog something she wants. And punishment is not always about hurting, intimidating or confining her.

Got that straight?

If your head already hurts, skip ahead and watch the movie.  That’s why I made it. The purpose of this post is to introduce a movie that illustrates the four contingent processes of operant learning with multiple examples, in hopes of clarifying the bigger concepts with those examples.  (Don’t worry; Feisty the stuffed dog stands in when bigtime aversives are used.)

Anybody still reading? Good.

A stuffed dog, brown and white, is in a crate. She is being sprayed with water from a spray bottle.
Does Feisty’s barking in the crate get punished by a spray of water?

To continue: Most of us have heard the term “positive reinforcement” and have a notion of what it means. The dog sits, you give her a cookie. That is by no means the whole picture, but it’s a start. But when the other terms start marching out, things get dicey. Negative reinforcement, negative punishment, and what, positive punishment? Isn’t that an oxymoron?

There is a certain amount of confusion that we just have to live with on this subject because of the terminology that B. F. Skinner chose and tweaked.  In behavior science, positive means something is added. Negative means something is removed. They do not mean good and bad,  happy and sad, or moral and immoral. Susan Friedman points out that in the context of mathematics, no one mistakes a plus sign to mean something happy or morally desirable. It just means you add that thing. Likewise with a minus sign. You take the thing away, whatever it is.

So that’s our first job. Think math. Take away the glamor around the word “positive.” In behavior science it just indicates an additive operation. And “negative” indicates a subtractive one. Ergo our first set of definitions:

  • Positive means that something is added after a behavior
  • Negative means that something is taken away after a behavior

The thing that gets added could be something really great at that moment (a bag of cookies), or it could be something awful, like a kick in the stomach. Likewise, the thing that gets taken away could be something you’ll miss, like that same bag of cookies, or it could be something that makes you sigh with relief when it stops, like a car alarm.

And that sets us up to talk about these “somethings” as consequences. Now we need to lose the idea that reinforcement is good and punishment is bad. Here is our second set of definitions:

  • Reinforcers are behavior-increasing consequences
  • Punishers are behavior-decreasing consequences

That sounds really dry, but that’s the way we need to think if we really want to understand this. We need to rid ourselves of the other definitions of these terms that leak into our head from pop culture.

Now let’s combine these four items into definitions of the four possible processes:

  • Positive reinforcement: something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.
  • Negative reinforcement: something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more often.
  • Positive punishment: something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.
  • Negative punishment: something is removed after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening less often.

The following graphic pulls it all together and is called a contingency table.

Contingency table of the processes of operant learning, sometimes called quadrants. It has increasing and decreasing behavior as the rows and adding and removing a stimulus as the columns.

We Don’t Mean Good and Bad

Take a look at the definitions of positive reinforcement and positive punishment again. “Something is added after a behavior, which results in the behavior happening more/less often.” Do you see that they differ by only one word? “More” vs “less.”  So if increases OR decreases in behavior can happen by adding things, those things must be pretty different if they are achieving the opposite result.

That’s why you will see many definitions of the contingent procedures of operant learning that describe the consequences as “good and bad.” But this shortcut can lead us awry. According to the preeminent book on applied behavior analysis, we shouldn’t classify consequences in this way.

There are no inherent or standard physical properties of stimuli that determine their permanent status as reinforcers and punishers. In fact, a stimulus can function as a positive reinforcer under one set of conditions and a negative reinforcer under different conditions. Just as positive reinforcers are not defined with terms such as pleasant or satisfying, aversive stimuli should not be defined with terms such as annoying or unpleasant.

Cooper et al, 2007, p. 41

We tend to have pretty strong ideas of what constitutes good and bad things, but they may be very different from how the animal responds. It’s the animal who matters, though. For instance, most of us would not classify yelling at a dog as “adding a good thing.” But yelling at a dog can reinforce what they are doing when we intend the opposite. Imagine a dog who has been locked outdoors all day and is now barking at the back door. Nothing happens, and nothing happens, then mom finally sticks her head out and yells, “Stop that barking!” and closes the door again. Social contact for a dog who has been starved for it. Do you think he will stop barking when a possible consequence of barking is seeing mom again?

Likewise, we humans seem to love patting dogs on the head, and there are whole schools of training that claim that their dogs work for “petting and praise.” Well, I included a head pat in the movie. Here’s a big hint: it’s not in the positive reinforcement section!

Increasing and Decreasing Behavior

We have Skinner to thank for some of the terminology confusion, but also, reinforcement and punishment are trickier to understand than they first appear to be, even when you get the positive and negative straight. If I give my dog a cookie when she sits, and she snarfs it down, have I just reinforced the sit? We don’t know! Part of the definition of reinforcement is that the consequence results in an increase in the behavior. So we don’t know if we have reinforced anything until the future, when we see whether the behavior actually increases.

Punishment is even more confusing because it appears to work right then. The dog barks, you yell at the dog, the dog stops barking for 30 seconds. Have you punished the barking? In the vernacular sense, many people would say yes. In the behavior science sense, again, we don’t know yet. It got interrupted. But punishment has to do with future behavior. We only know that the barking has been punished if it decreases in the future.

There are several uses of aversives portrayed in the movie that are very common in real life, done by people with the intent of punishing or negatively reinforcing a behavior. One example is when a dog barks in a crate. Some people keep a spray bottle of water next to the crate and give the dog a spray when he barks or whines. I’ve seen people do this day in and day out, even asking their friends to go by and give the dog a spray as a bonus. Are they punishing the barking? Apparently not. The barking has not decreased. Perhaps the dog likes being sprayed, or more likely in this context, there are other competing consequences of the barking that are reinforcing it.

Did Reinforcement or Punishment Occur?

That’s one more thing to consider: when you see the scenes in the movie, you do not see what other factors may influence the dog in real life. They might be from the environment or from her history. Back to the head pat in the movie: it’s in the positive punishment section. But honestly, Zani’s lying down on cue is not going to decrease because I patted her on the head one time after she did it, even though she clearly doesn’t care for it. She has been reinforced with food and play thousands of times for lying down. The one head pat, although unpleasant for her, will make hardly a ripple. But if getting patted on the head were the only consequence Zani ever got for lying down when I cued it, lying down on cue would decrease, and she would probably be avoiding me to boot.

So the predictions I give for each behavior in the movie (predicting that it will increase or decrease) would most likely be true if the consequence shown were the only consequence for that behavior.

A tan dog is stretched out with her mouth wide open, chasing a red and yellow toy on the end of a pole
Can we use this fun game to reinforce another behavior? Yes. I taught Clara a very successful “drop” using the flirt pole because she learned that dropping the toy would restart the game.


You have probably noticed that I have not used the term “operant conditioning.” One of the things the Applied Behavior Analysis folks focus on is precision in language. So although “operant conditioning” is an old and commonly used name for what I am writing about here, I am taking Susan Friedman’s lead and referring instead to “operant learning.” Because unlike in classical conditioning, we are not talking about a conditioned response at all. The processes we are discussing are about learning via consequences.

And ah, quadrants! Susan kindly pointed out to me that there is no official term “The Quadrants” in Applied Behavior Analysis. (Guess what the original name of my movie was! Oops!) That’s so sensible, too. Why would you refer to four processes that are the cornerstone of so much of what you study the equivalent of “the sectors” or “the divisions”? Not only that, but there is at least one more process of operant learning: extinction. Extinction is not a contingent process, however. But the fact that it is often omitted in discussions of operant learning leads to many problems.

The table we often see of the four processes is called a “contingency table” in the behavior analysis books. You generally won’t find “quadrants” in the index.

One other bit of terminology. I mentioned above that if we give a dog a cookie after she sits, we won’t know until the future whether we hare reinforced the sit. We can’t know right then whether the behavior will increase. But we do frequently use these terms as shortcuts for our assumptions and intents. One can make a distinction between procedures and processes of operant learning. They are “procedures” when one is discussing the intentional arrangement of consequences (i.e. training) by a human. We can use “processes” for the organically occurring learning in life. So when I give the dog a cookie after she sits, I’m using the procedure of positive reinforcement. But we won’t know until later whether the process of positive reinforcement occurred.  

My use of correct terminology is a work in process. Obviously, any mistakes or unfortunate wordings in this post are my responsibility alone.

Purposes of the Movie

As I mentioned above, the main purpose of the movie is to give several examples of each of these processes to aid the viewers in developing an understanding of the underlying concepts. I had a couple of other reasons for making it, too. One is to show the rather wide variety of consequences that can be used in each of the four processes. Another is to set me up to write a post about the Humane Hierarchy, which is an aid to making training decisions in order to maximize the freedom and quality of life of the animal.

And that leads me to what the movie is not: It’s not a training aid. All of these processes are not equally desirable! I am including portrayals of some extremely aversive consequences for educational viewing purposes only, and do not condone those practices. You may notice the green, yellow, and red colors in the chart. That is a hint of what I’ll be presenting in the post about the Humane Hierarchy.

The Movie

Finally! Here it is.

Thanks for watching! Stay tuned for all sorts of stuff, now that I have finally finished with this one!


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2007). Applied behavior analysis. 2nd ed. Pearson.

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Copyright 2013 Eileen Anderson

47 thoughts on “Operant Learning (Quadrants) Illustrated by Examples

  1. A post very useful and easy to understand! Brilliant! The wonderful video! 🙂

  2. Hi Eileen,

    This is a great post and video. May I have your permission to put this on my website – all credit to you of course – I’d love to have a clear explanation of this often confusing issue for clients.

    If you’d rather not, I understand.



    Janis Mikelberg B.A. CPDT-KA

    Certified Professional Dog Trainer, Knowledge Assessed Professional Member, APDT, (Association of Pet Dog Trainers) Professional Member, The Pet Professional Guild


    “Like” us on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SitStayLearn Subscribe to my Blog http://www.sitstaylearn.ca/blog.php

  3. I will definitely put a link to this on my FB page. This is a wonderful example, well explained and correct! 🙂 Well done Eileen

  4. Fantastic! Will share on my Facebook page “Your Pit Bull and You”, which is dedicated to improving the image of pit bulls and promoting the use of force-free training for all dogs. Love this- thank you!

  5. Fantastic article! I love it and the corresponding video on YouTube, both of which I’ve bookmarked for further reading/watching. So clearly explained, it can easily be understood by clients. Apart from sharing on my FB page, may I have permission to retain both in my toolbox to pass on to others as appropriate – citing you as the author, of course?!

  6. Far better to totally scrap the old defunct term punisher and replace it with diminisher

  7. Great video and verbal explanation! I’ll be sharing with our Dogsafe Instructors since we teach about operant learning (I like this term better than conditioning, for the reasons you explained!) and how it relates to introducing muzzles, stretchers and other first aid related topics. Thank you again, great job!!

    1. Thanks Michelle! I’m delighted! Credit goes to Dr. Susan Friedman for the term operant learning. Her use of language is always so sensible. Thanks again!

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