It is not only that we learn many behaviors through operant conditioning; we can also eliminate or modify unacceptable behaviors using operant procedure. Most of the maladaptive behaviors are learned with the assistance of reinforcement, either visible or invisible. A child throws temper tantrums when his needs are not immediately satisfied. An adolescent girl and her parents have intense arguments. A preschool child repeatedly throws glass and breaks them. A child wets his bed during night. All these maladaptive behaviors are learnt, and can therefore be modified using techniques of classical and operant conditioning. The process of modifying these behaviors is called behavior modification, which emphasizes changing behavior by reinforcing desired target behaviors. In clinical psychology, behavior modification is usually referred to as behavior therapy.
Behavior modification intends to replace unacceptable and maladaptive responses with adaptive ones. A child throws temper tantrums or a preschool child throws glasses as a means of inviting adult attention. Their behaviors may be receiving too much attention from parents and teachers. In such cases, parents and teachers should remove attention (withdrawal of reinforcement) form the undesirable behaviors and transfer it to more adaptive behaviors such as roaming quietly or playing cooperatively with the peers. The intense arguments between the adolescent and the parents can be reduced by asking both to sign a behavioral contract, which stresses on reinforcing only adaptive interactions between both. The bed-wetting behavior can be treated through shaping using the method of successive approximations.
Earlier it was believed that voluntary responses could only be conditioned through operant procedure. Involuntary behaviors such as blood pressure, pulse rate, muscle tension can also be controlled by operant conditioning through biofeedback. In biofeedback, the individual is given information about his bodily processes so that they can change. For example, individual's muscle tension is fed back to him in the form of an audible tone. As muscle tension rises, the tone becomes louder; as it drops, the tone becomes softer. When the information is fed back to him, the individual learns to control his muscle tension.
The principles of operant conditioning have been applied in the field of education. The two important applications are computer-assisted instruction (CAI) and programmed instruction. In CAI, the student learns from an active interaction with a computer programme. The program engages the student in a learning activity, paces the program at the students’ rate of progress, and provides immediate feedback on correct and incorrect answers and permit students to enter branch programmes for special help in areas of weakness. In CAI, the student takes greater responsibility for his performance as compared to teacher-led instruction, because he treats the computer as impersonal and therefore 'fairer'. Programmed instruction follows the same principles as CAI, and can be put forth in the form of a programmed learning booklet.
The operant conditioning principles have been applied in any practical settings. It is almost impossible to describe all of them here. To name only a few, the principles have been applied to personalized system of education, crime control, energy conservation, health care issues, employee productivity and company profits etc.