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Instrumental Conditioning

  1. James W. Grau

Published Online: 30 JAN 2010

DOI: 10.1002/9780470479216.corpsy0446

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology

How to Cite

Grau, J. W. 2010. Instrumental Conditioning. Corsini Encyclopedia of Psychology. 1–2.

Author Information

  1. Texas A&M University

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 30 JAN 2010


Instrumental conditioning represents a form of behavioral change that depends on the temporal relationship (contingency) between a response and an environmental outcome. The response might correspond to pressing a bar, lifting a leg, turning a wheel, or navigating a maze. In the laboratory, the outcome is typically a biologically relevant event, such as food, water, or a frightening shock. Outside the laboratory, behavior can be modified by a variety of events including social praise, access to a sexual partner, or a stimulus that has acquired value (e.g., money). Outcomes capable of modifying an organism's behavior are sometimes called reinforcers, and the process through which they influence behavior is known as reinforcement. Examples of an instrumental contingency include praising a child for waiting quietly or providing a food pellet to a rat whenever it presses a bar. According to Thorndike's law of effect, these contingencies should bring about a lasting change in behavior, leading the child to stand quietly and increasing the frequency with which the rat presses the bar.


  • conditioning;
  • instrumental conditioning;
  • learning;
  • operant conditioning;
  • reinforcement