Instrumental Behavior

Instrumental behavior is a learned behavior exhibited by persons in response to certain stimuli.

Instrumental behavior is a concept that grew out of the behavior therapy movement, originating in the 1950s with the work of German psychologist Hans Jürgen Eysenck (1916–1997). Behavior therapy asserts that neuroses are not the symptoms of underlying disorders, as Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939) theorized, but are instead disorders in and of themselves. Further, these disorders are learned responses to traumatic experiences in much the same way that animals exhibit learned responses to conditioning.

The classic behaviorist experiments of Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) and American psychologist B. F. Skinner (1904–1990) showed that animals could be trained to respond in a learned way to external stimuli. Humans respond in a similar manner. If, for instance, a child has a difficult, painful relationship with his older brother, who is athletic and popular, he may develop a fear or hatred of all popular, athletic males, and those emotional responses may stay with him throughout life—even after the original stimuli for the reaction (his older brother) is absent. This behavior is referred to as instrumental behavior, also known as operant behavior.

In treating patients to eliminate instrumental behaviors, behavioral therapists rely on several fairly welltested techniques. Perhaps the most popular is counterconditioning, a process in which a therapist links the stimuli to a different instrumental behavior or conditioned response. This might involve associating a feared object or situation to something pleasurable.

Other methods of treatment include flooding and modeling. In flooding, a therapist attempts to expose a patient to an overload of the anxiety-producing stimuli in order to lessen its effect. For a patient with an irrational fear of seaweed, for example, a therapist may have the patient hold his hand in an aquarium filled with seaweed on several occasions until the fear abates. In some cases, the phobia may be so extreme that the therapist may proceed in steps, such as initially introducing photos of seaweed, then having the person hold his hand in turf grass on land, then submerged turf grass, and finally in submerged seaweed. In modeling, the patient is exposed to someone who has successfully dealt with a similar anxiety-producing stimuli.


Conditioned response—
A learned response to a stimulus.
A process in which a therapist tries to associate a different response to a certain stimulus (e.g., associating something pleasant with a feared stimulus).
In psychology, a treatment in which a therapist tries to help a patient overcome an anxiety associated with a stimuli by introducing the patient to an overload of the anxiety-producing stimuli in order to lessen its effect.
In psychology, a treatment in which a therapisttries to help a patient overcome an anxiety associated with a stimuli by exposing the patient to someone who has successfully dealt with a similar anxiety.
A functional personality disorder often associated with anxiety.

See also Conditioning ; Skinner, B. F.



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Comer, Ronald J. “Problems of Stress and Anxiety.” In Abnormal Psychology, 8th ed. New York: Worth, 2012.

McSweeney, Frances K., and Eric S. Murphy, eds. The Wiley Blackwell Handbook of Operant and Classical Conditioning. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014.


Duke University Psychology & Neuroscience. “Operant Behavior.” (accessed September 14, 2015).

Goldman, Jason G. “What Is Operant Conditioning? (and How Does It Explain Driving Dogs?)” Scientific American. (accessed September 14, 2015). “What Is Operant Behavior?” (accessed September 14, 2015).


B. F. Skinner Foundation, 18 Brattle St., Ste. 451, Cambridge, MA, 02138, (617) 661-9209, info@bfskinner. org, .