Operant Conditioning: The ABC Model

Now that we have a sense about classical conditioning let’s change tracks a bit and look at operant conditioning, which is like the personal trainer for behaviors. It’s not about reflexes; it’s about teaching behaviors through consequences.

Said more simply, operant conditioning describes how consequences influence behavior whereas classical conditioning was only focused on how innate behaviors get paired to different stimuli through learning.

Getting to Know the ABC Model

While the MCAT doesn’t quiz you directly on the ABC model of operant conditioning, grasping this framework sets the stage for answering questions and understanding further concepts.

It’s similar to what we’ve explored in classical conditioning, but with a key difference: in classical conditioning, we weren’t focused on the aftermath of the behavior. In contrast, operant conditioning puts the spotlight on consequences. It’s these outcomes that are the star of the show, guiding how behaviors are formed and adjusted over time.

We can think of the ABC model as the script for our “operant play”:

  • A) Antecedent: This is what sets the scene. It’s the cue or environment that tells you the behavior is about to kick off.
  • B) Behavior: This is the main act. It’s what you actually do – the observable action.
  • C) Consequence: And this is the final act. Depending on how the audience reacts—clapping or booing—determines if you’re likely to perform that play again.

That right there is the key difference the consequences are going to change what behaviors are likely to occur in the future. If you get something you like as a consequence chances are your going to repeat that behavior and vice versa if you get something you don’t want.

For an everyday behavior this model would look something like this:

A) Antecedent: Your phone pings with a notification (this is the cue or the environmental factor that sets the stage for the behavior).

B) Behavior: You immediately pick up your phone to check the notification (this is the action you take in response to the cue).

C) Consequence: You find that you’ve received a like on your social media post (this is the outcome of the behavior).

How To Use The ABC Model

As I said before the MCAT doesn’t directly test you on the ABC model, but it can be helpful to identify the ABCs in a scenario since certain ideas and terms can only apply to certain parts of the ABC setup. For example generalization and discrimination rely on antecedent factors while positive punishment applies only to consequences. So if the question is addressing a consequence then generalization or discrimination couldn‘t be the right answer because they address the wrong factor in our ABC setup.