Operant Conditioning Techniques to Stop Smoking

Operant conditioning is the use of rewards and punishments to increase the performance of a desired behavior or decrease or eliminate an undesirable one. A subject can be rewarded either by being given something pleasurable (positive reward) or removing something unpleasant (negative reward). Punishments can also be positive (the subject receives an unpleasant sensation or consequence) or negative (the subject loses something pleasant.) For operant conditioning to work, the rewards and punishments should be reliable. If smoking is only punished some of the time or nonsmoking is only rewarded occasionally, it will take longer for the operant conditioning to work.

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Contigency contracting

One of the simplest operant conditioning techniques to stop smoking is the contingency contract. A contingency contract is an agreement the smoker makes with a friend, family member or other partner which sets out rewards and consequences for smoking and not smoking. One simple approach is to give the partner a substantial chunk of money. For every week you go without smoking, you receive a certain amount of money back, providing you with a positive reinforcement for not smoking. If you slip up and smoke, either you receive no money that week or your partner receives that week's wage. This provides a negative punishment for smoking.


If you have the willpower, you can devise a system of rewards for yourself when you quit smoking. You could treat yourself to ice cream or allow yourself to watch your favorite program or movie when you don't smoke. If you slip up and smoke, deny yourself the chosen privilege for the day. Be sure to come up with an agreement with yourself before you start. Plan out clearly exactly what reward you will receive for each day or week without smoking, and stick to the plan.


Immediate punishment can be a very effective way to help you unlearn a behavior. You may wish to keep a rubber band on your wrist at all times. If you find yourself smoking, snap it against your wrist as painfully as possible right after you light up, and again after you finish your cigarette. Providing an unpleasant consequence to smoking in the form of pain will make it a less appealing practice. If you prefer negative punishment, deprive yourself of something your really enjoy when you smoke. For example, if you habitually wear earphones and listen to music during the day, restrict yourself for listening for 24 hours any time you smoke.