Operant Conditioning as a Strategy in Weight Loss

 Our behaviors are shaped, psychologically, by the resultant responses we expect from them. Behaviorists have defined Operant Conditioning as a form of learning in which behavior increases in frequency due to the reinforcement it receives. Therefore, any action followed by a stimulus is predicted to occur again. Operant Conditioning is an efficient way of shaping enduring learning. Operant Conditioning has been categorized into positive and negative reinforcements and positive and negative punishments.

How Does the Concept of Operant Conditioning Operate?

             In Operant Conditioning, reinforcement refers to any stimulant applied to the individual to increase the probability of behavioral recurrence. The individual under study becomes active and operates in their environment. Their response to stimuli is therefore voluntary. Operant conditioning is based on the fact that people connect their behavior to the resulting reward or punishment. Consequences of any behaviors are therefore bound to influence response behavior (McLeod, 2007).

Punishment as an Incentive in Exercise Targeting Weight Loss

            Many people resort to rewards as an incentive towards exercise. These rewards are usually in the form of finish line medals, sneaking snacks and treat days. Psychologists propagate that people fear losing something or having it taken away from them, which strongly suggests that negative feedback is a more effective tool at behavior modification. People tend to avoid punishment and any potentially dangerous situations. The punishment should not be harsh since negative feedback tends to have the same impact. Applying operant conditioning to weight loss through punishment requires the individual to identify what they would hate to lose most. The decision needs to be carefully considered since the aim is not to discourage or demoralize them. Unhealthy relationships may be shaped in order to make the individual detest the thought of weight loss.

              Most people resort to food as a stimulant. Where it is used in negative feedback, the individual may avoid exercising. Where food is withdrawn as punishment for failed exercises in weight loss, individuals have developed eating disorders such as bulimia and anorexia nervosa (Epstein et al., 2010).  Money, on the other hand, has been acclaimed as the best stimuli. People generally have no intention of losing their money; therefore the success rate is higher where the individual gives up the cash for any inconsistencies. However, studies have shown that it is necessary to combine negative reinforcement with positive reinforcement. Exercise as a weight loss strategy is a positive reinforcement on its own. The sweat secreted releases a rush of endorphin that lifts the mood, one attains a strong fit body and also gains a feeling of competency (Annesi, 2005). One must work with an exercise that they love.  

Dieting in Operant Conditioning as a Weight Loss Strategy

             One must learn to customize their diet in a way that works for them to ensure that they stay healthy and attain a permanent sate of weight loss. To come up with an effective diet, it is imperative to take the first 10-14 days to note the quantity of food consumed; for every breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and drinks taken. The effectiveness of weight loss, dieting is determined by attention to detail during that period even though one may not necessarily take note of all the calories consumed. The amount of water, fruits and vegetables consumed per day is also necessary to note. Weight loss attempts are effective when the individual clearly defines their target weight as an endpoint from their current weight.

             Dieting requires one to expend more energy daily compared to the amount of burnable calories consumed. One should also consume a good amount of water, fruits and vegetables daily for effectiveness. Modifications in the diet should be changed gradually in small amounts. It can be as simple as completely doing away with a snack, replacing a snack with a fruit, taking a salad instead of lunch or taking water in place of sodas and juices. The changes should be small but all geared towards healthier feeding.

             Operant Conditioning takes effect in dieting since what one consumes is their choice and ultimately affects the outcome of their weight loss project. It takes on positive reinforcement in the form of rewards, such that one is excited and tends to execute the behavior more frequently. The reward is more effective when applied immediately after the behavior. The rewards should include healthy activities that one enjoys taking part in such as watching movies, going out with friends or reading, as compared to rewarding oneself with a snack or more food. The process must continue for a number of weeks until one starts consuming less food, snacks and eating healthier (Epstein et al., 2010). This therefore means that one does not necessarily need to exercise but it would be a positive complement.

Shaping in Operant Conditioning

             Shaping is a crucial principle of operant conditioning, where the weight loss objectives are divided into smaller subsections, and each successive approximations of the targeted behavior are rewarded. It is effective because it keeps motivation high instead of waiting to reward the target behavior itself (complete weight loss), as this would take time before accomplishment. These approximations of the desired behavior are continually rewarded, until finally, only the desired behavior itself is rewarded. Shaping heavily relies on stimulus discrimination. This is applicable in both exercising and dieting as measures of weight loss. One gets to reward themselves after small spurts of exercising daily and gradually adapting to healthier eating habits. This is done until finally the individual has the exercising and dieting right, and only rewarding the weight loss. For example, if one targets a total weight loss of 20 pounds, every time you lose 2 pounds one can reward themselves by saving some money in a jar targeting a vacation. After losing the 20 pounds, they can finally take the vacation (Annesi, 2005).

Reinforcement Schedules

      Using Operant Conditioning to lose weight calls for using strategic schedules of reinforcement that may affect the extinction or acquisition of the behavior. There are fixed-ratio schedules where one may, for instance, receive a massage for every pound they lose after a set number of responses. There are fixed-interval schedules where the massage may be given for every successful 24 hour diet. There are also variable-interval and variable-ratio schedules in which the schedules and time intervals are chosen at random. However, in these two cases, acquisition of the targeted behavior takes longer and is more difficult, though extinction is minimized (McLeod 2007). In conclusion, Operant Conditioning in weight lose is bound to be effective. The use of punishments or rewards is bound to increase the rate of weight loss till finally the desired target is achieved and maintained.


Annesi, J. J. (2005). Relationship between before-to-after-exercise feeling state changes and

exercise session attendance over 14 weeks: testing principles of operant conditioning. European Journal of Sport Science, 5(4), 159-163.

Epstein, L. H., Robinson, J. L., Roemmich, J. N., Marusewski, A. L., & Roba, L. G. (2010).

What constitutes food variety? Stimulus specificity of food. Appetite, 54(1), 23-29.

McLeod, S. A. (2007). BF Skinner: Operant conditioning. Retrieved October, 14, 2017.

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