Examples Of Operant Conditioning That May Help Control OCD

Updated January 6, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

OCD (obsessive-compulsive disorder) can be life-altering, affecting an individual at school, at work, in social settings, and at home. Simple chores and errands can end up being complicated and stressful events.

However, improvement is possible through various treatments, including through operant conditioning. Operant conditioning may help you make progress and maintain it. Examples of operant conditioning that can help control OCD can be found in prominent peer-reviewed psychology journals. Before delving in to operant conditioning, we’ll explore OCD below.

Explore Operant Conditioning For OCD.

What Is OCD?

OCD, or obsessive compulsive disorder, is a psychological condition that causes a person to repeat tasks over and over, sometimes for a set number of times. This is called a ritual. Other symptoms of OCD include repetitive thoughts or behaviors that are difficult to control. Some common rituals include counting steps, hand washing or checking locked doors and lights over and over to be sure they are closed and off, and chewing each piece of food a set number of times. Many of the repetitive behaviors include counting items and making specific movements, or ticks.

If you or someone you love experiences OCD, then you know how this disorder can make someone feel like a prisoner to never-ending rituals and compulsions. To an outsider, it might seem simple. If you don't like engaging in the behavior (i.e., the constant hand-washing, checking doors, etc.), then just stop doing it.

However, it's not that simple. The reasons why go all the way back to the 1940s and famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner, whose research helps us to understand the principles of operant conditioning.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Back in 1948, B.F. Skinner made some important discoveries through the use of what was called a "Skinner box." This allowed him to observe the behavior of animals and the way that they respond to their environment. He found that all stimuli could be divided into three categories: neutral operants, reinforcers, and punishers.

If a certain behavior results in a positive response, that behavior will be reinforced. However, if it results in a negative response, that same behavior most likely will not be repeated.

We can see many examples of this in our day-to-day lives. When a child throws a temper tantrum and they get what they want, they are rewarded for their bad behavior. If a child throws a temper tantrum and they do not get what they want, eventually they will likely stop throwing temper tantrums. If an employee earns a bonus for excellent job performance, that employee will likely continue to work hard so that the positive response may be repeated.

This principle may also explain the symptoms of OCD. By engaging in a ritual behavior, a person with OCD may experience temporary relief from anxiety symptoms. This positive result can reinforce the ritual behavior.

For example, let's say that during your childhood, your house was robbed while you and your family were away. This event may cause you to develop severe anxiety about leaving your home. The act of checking that the doors are locked may help you feel less anxious. The relief of your anxiety can be such a positive reinforcement that you begin to do so more and more frequently until the behavior becomes a compulsion.

Explore Operant Conditioning For OCD.

How Does Operant Conditioning Work?

Premised on the concept of reinforcements and rewards, operant conditioning seeks to provide incentives for healthy behaviors and consequences for unwanted behaviors.

In psychology, psychiatrists, psychologists, and therapists sometimes use operant conditioning to help people overcome obsessive-compulsive behaviors. The therapy is based on observing the environmental stimuli that reward unwanted behavior and then creating a plan to control OCD behaviors with positive and negative stimuli.

Anxiety may eventually go away on its own if an individual becomes "habituated" to the trigger. In other words, if you come into contact with germs but don't get sick, any anxiety you have about germs may eventually decrease or perhaps go away altogether. If you are anxious in social settings but you manage to make some new friends and have some interesting conversations at a party, this anxiety may start to fade.

In order for this to happen, however, the individual typically has to ignore their compulsion to avoid the anxiety triggered by the situation. If they engage in compulsive behavior, they don’t get to experience habituation and thus will likely continue to experience anxiety when placed in contact with its trigger.

Operant conditioning can create a positive reinforcement for the compulsion. For instance, instead of washing their hands, the individual could meditate or engage in some other activity. Instead of going back home yet again to check the locks, they could call a friend to chat. These actions can produce positive responses from the environment as a result of ignoring the compulsions of OCD.

When an individual engages in their compulsion, they do not get what they ultimately want, which is to stop the compulsion. A trained therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist who uses behavior modification techniques may be able to help someone overcome OCD using operant conditioning.

Examples Of Operant Conditioning That Can Help Control OCD

Examples of operant conditioning therapies to help control OCD show how positive and negative rewards can help control OCD. When an individual engages in a compulsive behavior, they are rewarded by a reduction in stress. The stress builds until the individual gives in and performs the compulsive behavior. Then the stress is released. The following are two examples of operant conditioning that can help control OCD:

Exposure Therapy

To become habituated to an anxiety trigger, an individual can learn to sit with that trigger and face it head-on until the anxiety passes. This can occur through exposure therapy.

Exposure therapy might mean that you will have to touch multiple surfaces without washing your hands. While this may be scary at first, you can become conditioned to understand that you're not going to get sick just because you fail to wash your hands after touching anything. 

If you are a hoarder, it might mean you face your fear of cleaning up and throwing out some of your belongings. As you realize that nothing terrible happens as a result of throwing out old papers and knick-knacks, you may begin to lose the anxiety that triggered the compulsive behavior.

Using exposure therapy, a therapist may ask you to refrain from your compulsion until the stress dissipates. This dissipation of stress can serve as positive reinforcement for not engaging in unwanted behavior.

Behavioral Therapy

A therapist may ask you to replace your compulsive behavior with a different, healthy behavior. This can serve as a positive reinforcement that teaches you that there are other methods for coping with anxiety and stress.

Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) is an approach to treating OCD in which the therapist seeks to help the client explore what is causing their compulsive behaviors. For example, while in CBT, an individual with OCD may uncover that their compulsion to always chew things 15 times exactly is actually a response to not feeling as though they have control in their life. The therapist and client can then work to help the individual curb this OCD behavior and learn how to feel safer and in control of their life.

How BetterHelp Can Help

If you need help overcoming your OCD symptoms, don't hesitate to reach out to a trained counselor at BetterHelp. You can be matched with a counselor experienced in exposure therapy, behavioral therapy, and CBT for OCD symptoms.

Online therapy been shown to be just as effective as in-person therapy. In the case of online CBT treat conditions like OCD, a paper reviewing 373 studies of online CBT found it to actually be more beneficial and effective, even post-treatment, than in-person therapy. Overall, those utilizing online CBT talked with their therapist more, completed more treatment modules and exercises, and had a lower drop-out rate than individuals utilizing face-to-face therapy.

If leaving the house to see a therapist makes you nervous because of your OCD symptoms, you can talk to a counselor completely online with BetterHelp. You can contact your therapist via phone call, video chat, in-app messaging, or live voice recording—whatever makes you more comfortable.

Continue reading below to find reviews of some of our licensed therapists from people seeking help with OCD.

“Liza has been tremendous. We have worked through my OCD issues with incremental steps and I really feel that I can tell her anything without judgment. I really appreciated that she validated my feelings and helped me on getting through my OCD journey. Thanks again Liza!”

“Very friendly, empathetic, and excellent communication. Fantastic descriptions of how our brain works and the thought functionality. Streamlined and easy to follow “homework”. He helps me stay on track (I am one giant tangent) and get to the root of the issue and he helps create a step by step game plan on how to effectively assist me with my anxiety and OCD.”


If you have concerns about addressing symptoms of OCD, you don’t have to face them alone. With the help of an online counselor at BetterHelp, you can explore your concerns from the comfort of your own home under the guidance of a professional experienced with OCD treatments. Take the first step to freedom and reach out to BetterHelp today.

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