Operant Conditioning The Hiatus between Theory and Practice in Clinical Psychology

  • C. F. Lowe
  • P. J. Horne
  • P. J. Higson
Part of the Perspectives on Individual Differences book series (PIDF)


The application of operant conditioning principles, characterized variously as behavior modification or applied behavior analysis, has become widespread in clinical psychology. A central theoretical assumption underlying this approach is that operant principles, originally derived from the study of animals in controlled experimental settings, have general applicability, governing not only the behavior of animals but also that of humans. In their early work, Skinner and others showed that animal behavior was an orderly function of contingencies of reinforcement so that any particular performance, on a schedule of reinforcement for instance, could be analyzed within the framework of the “three-term contingency,” that is, the relationship between responses, reinforcers, and discriminative stimuli. The response was usually the operation of some mechanical device like a lever; the reinforcer was typically food, and discriminative stimuli were environmental events, such as the illumination of colored lights. All of these variables were publicly observable events. The creation of explanatory fictions, “events taking place somewhere else, at some other level of observation” (Skinner, 1950), was eschewed.


Verbal Behavior Discriminative Stimulus Operant Conditioning Target Behavior Operant Behavior 
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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 1987

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. F. Lowe
    • 1
  • P. J. Horne
    • 1
  • P. J. Higson
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity College of North WalesBangor, GwyneddWales
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyNorth Wales HospitalDenbigh, ClwydWales

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