AP Psychology Study Resource: Instrumental Behavior

Some movements and actions are reflex. When someone puts their hand on a hot stove, they instinctively know to pull away. Otherwise, they will be burned, and this causes pain. The removal of the hand from the hot surface eliminates the chance of feeling pain, which will encourage that person to have the same reaction when they come in contact with another source of heat. However, if that person were to intentionally put their hand back on the hot stove to burn themselves, this would be called an instrumental behavior.

Because most actions are done as a response to a stimulus or as a reaction to another person, there isn’t much planning involved, if any. These behaviors are called respondent behaviors. This is the class of practices commonly discussed when talking about classical conditioning, as most of the connections that are made between stimuli and actions are made unwittingly.

What Is Instrumental Behavior?

Anything that is done on purpose, or with a particular goal in mind, is considered instrumental behavior. If the action has been thought out and planned in advance, it is deemed to be instrumental behavior. These acts are performed in order to reach a goal, such as gaining a reward or removing a punishment. The behavior will cause the desired outcome.

Instrumental behavior is commonly seen when problem-solving is being employed. Direct actions (for example, opening a door) do not always work. The door might be locked or otherwise jammed, so instrumental behavior is employed to find another way to open the door, which would be considered a reward. The instrumental behavior, in this case, would be to locate and use a key to unlock the locked door.

This is a type of behavior everyone employs, as long as there is a goal involved, big or small. Any time you have to perform an action to achieve the desired result, it is considered instrumental, instead of the respondent. The conscious intention behind the action is what sets this type of behavior apart from all others.

When Do You Apply Instrumental Behavior?

One place you will see instrumental behavior is in instrumental conditioning. This is a type of conditioning where the object must first perform the action before it can be conditioned. For example, if a child says a curse word for the first time, parents will chastise them, and they will get into trouble. The behavior had not occurred before this instance, so there wasn’t behavior to condition. However, by punishing the child, they learn not to say the curse word.

This process is also known as operant conditioning, where reinforcement and punishment are used to either increase or decrease the likelihood that behavior will be repeated in the future. By nature, rewarding and punishing others for their behaviors is typically instrumental and planned.

Reinforcement and Punishment

There are four main subsets of instrumental conditioning: positive punishment, negative punishment, positive reinforcement, and negative reinforcement. These aspects of operant conditioning, identified by B. F. Skinner, either aim to increase or decrease a specific behavior. As an example, let’s talk about a misbehaving child.


Positive reinforcement presents the desired outcome, and in our example, this could mean that the child is praised whenever they do not perform the adverse action. Negative reinforcement, however, is the removal of an unpleasant stimulus. For example, if the child were crying, they could be told to go to their room until they are done crying. Once they finish crying, they are allowed to leave their room and move freely about the space, which encourages the child to not cry in the future.


Positive punishment is when an unpleasant stimulus or event is applied after a behavior. A classic example is a parent spanking a child; this adds an unpleasant stimulus after an undesired behavior. Negative punishment, on the other hand, involves removing a desired event or incentives after an individual behavior. In this example, it might mean that the child can no longer play with their friends because they did not clean their room like they were told to.

Instrumental Aggression

Another area that popularly displays instrumental behavior is instrumental aggression. While impulse aggression is a feeling of hostility that pops up at the moment, goal-oriented and instrumental aggression is thought out and sometimes even planned and calculated. Goal-oriented aggression is an act of aggression that is done to achieve some sort of goal. This can range from name-calling to purposefully hurting another person.

In some cases, instrumental aggression is a precursor to goal-oriented aggression. This form of aggression is calculated and planned well in advance of the act itself. In most cases of instrumental aggression, there is a goal or a means to an end, and, those who act out in this sense seek to avoid the consequences of their actions. Some famous examples of instrumental aggression include the bombing of the World Trade Center, the mass shooting at Columbine, and the Oklahoma City Bombing.

Everyday Uses

Instrumental behaviors are not always malicious. Everyone, at some point in the day, will execute instrumental actions. This could be as simple as deciding to cook food because you know you are hungry and wish to eat. Or, it could be attending class because you want to succeed and get a good grade. As long as there is a motive behind the action, it is considered instrumental.

Top 4 Things to Know About Instrumental Behavior

There are a number of things to keep in mind when thinking about instrumental behavior and keeping this type of behavior separate from other types of behavior. This is far different from respondent behavior, where it is said that learning does not take place and it is merely a reaction to an outside source.

1. Manipulation of Instrumental Aggression

Often times, instrumental aggression is used in order to shed a positive light on the aggressor. You might have heard this referred to as someone “putting themselves on a pedestal” or “putting others down to make themselves look good.” While the two are not mutually exclusive, patterns of instrumental aggression mixed with this type of attitude can be indicative of a narcissistic personality. Many times this depends on the motive of the aggressor and what spurred the instrumentally aggressive action.

2. Generalized Aggression Model

If you are prone to aggressive behaviors, you can use the Generalized Aggression Model (or GAM). The GAM’s primary function is to combine different theories about aggression and aggressive behaviors into one more extensive umbrella theory that aims to explain why people behave aggressively. It takes into account the different circumstances in a person’s life that might cause them to act aggressively. This collection of theories helps scientists and layperson alike to understand where aggression and unkind behaviors stem from.

3. Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov is known for his famous experiment with dogs that salivated at the sound of a bell. Through classical conditioning, the dogs were taught to associate the sight of their food with the sound of a bell and therefore learned to salivate at the sound of the bell, even though the food was not present. However, it was E. L Thorndike, his experiment with cats, and his theory of “trial and error” learning that caused B. F. Skinner to define positive and negative punishment and reinforcements later.

In this experiment, Thorndike placed hungry cats in a puzzle box where they had to learn how to escape. At first, they clawed at the sides and other unhelpful behaviors, but they began to learn to push or pull at the escape route, leading them out of the box and to their food. Skinner thought there had to be more to learning than “trial and error,” so he began to look into how new behaviors became conditioned. This is where operant conditioning came to life.

4. Reinforcement

Skinner created the “Skinner Box” to test mice to see if they would press the lever in order to get food, even though they had no prior knowledge that this action would give them a reward. This is what he termed a positive reward, so the hungry mice would continue to push the lever over and over. Inversely, those same mice were put in a box that had an electric current that went through it. If they touched the lever, they would no longer receive the shock. They quickly learned to go straight to the lever.


The thing you need to remember about instrumental actions is that they are intentional. There is some goal behind the behavior, and there, at times, is even planning that goes into executing the behavior, if it is more involved or sophisticated. This makes it calculated and planned, whereas respondent behaviors are in response to external stimuli.

In some cases, these actions are malicious and aggressive. However, this isn’t always the case. Every day, choices are made, and when they are made, they are created with an end goal in mind. The actions that go along with these decisions, positive or negative, are the instrumental behaviors that B. F. Skinner worked so hard to define.