Operant behavior is a term first used by B.F. Skinner who was one of the best-known psychologists in the behaviorism school. In his many years of work, Skinner theorized that organisms were often influenced in behavior by consequences, and that previous consequences would have an affect on future behavior. Consequences could be either natural or contrived, and were often contrived in the types of studies on operant behavior practices on animals.
Essentially, this type of behavior is the person/organism response to consequences, and the way behavior is influenced by such. Operant itself is behavior that produces some affect on the general environment. Another definition could be not only behavior that is influenced by environment but that causes change to the environment.
It is perhaps easiest to understand this in the context of examples. There are many types of operants that could encourage a behavior based on giving positive reinforcement. For instance, rats could be tested for speed when they run through a maze. After beginning testing, a tasty food snack would be put at the end of the maze to determine if the rat would have a shorter running time. If the rat’s running time increased, this is an example of operant behavior (provided the test can be duplicated multiple times). The rat’s behavior changes (speed increases) because it is being positively reinforced to run through the maze.
Alternately, a scientist could test the rat’s operant behavior by placing in a box a lever or button that causes pain when it is pressed. If the rat first explores the lever and experiences this pain, it is likely to leave the lever alone afterwards. This explores the idea of negative reinforcement or a negative operant.
Another example of operant behavior or operants is lack of consequences or extinction conditioning. This is when nothing results from a behavior. People regularly use this form of extinction condition with young children. The "cry it out" method induces a response, because parents do not respond to a child’s cries. This gradually reinforces the concept in the infant that crying does not elicit a parent’s response and is therefore worthless.
Some people feel a degree of discomfort with behaviorism, and particularly with things like the cry it out method. It is fair to question what operant behavior means on a larger scale. Does the cry it out baby ultimately end up needing therapy because he has grown with a sense of inferiority and unimportance? That’s a good and much debated issue.
However work by Skinner and others has been successfully applied in psychology, even if there exists arguments about behavioral psychology and its methods. The sum total of things that govern complete behavior in a human may be very different. Clearly, though, Skinner and many other behaviorists have shown that both animals and people often change their behavior given different operants, and the ways that can be applied to benefit people might be numerous.