What is shaping a behavior?

Cite this article as: Praveen Shrestha, "What is shaping a behavior?," in Psychestudy, November 17, 2017, https://www.psychestudy.com/behavioral/learning-memory/operant-conditioning/what-is-shaping-behavior.

The process of establishing a behavior that is not learned or performed by an individual at present is referred to as Shaping. Shaping can also be defined as the procedure that involves reinforcing behaviors that are closer to the target behavior, also known as successive approximations. The concept was first developed and used by B.F Skinner, who is known for his theories that involve learning behaviors through reinforcement.

The theory involves reinforcing behavior that are successively closer and closer to the approximations of the desired, or targeted, behavior. The process of shaping is vital because it’s not always likely that an organism should display the exact target behavior spontaneously. However, by reinforcing the behavior that is closer and closer to the desired behavior, the required behavior can be taught/learned. For instance, teaching new tricks to a dog, teaching a kid how to walk and the likes. The step by step procedure of reinforcing different behaviors until the ultimate behavior is achieved is called Successive Approximations.

How Shaping of Behavior works?

Shaping of behavior isn’t really the simplest of processes although it’s not complicated by any means. One of the first experiments conducted by B.F Skinner on shaping involved teaching pigeons how to bowl, where the pigeons were gradually taught to sideswipe the ball with its beak down the alley towards the pins. Another prime example of shaping conducted by Skinner is his experiment on rats.

In his experiment where he taught a rat how to press the lever for food, it wasn’t a sudden spontaneous behavior rat performed out of hunch. The target behavior for the rat was to press the lever, in which case, it would be rewarded with food. But, of course, the rat wasn’t going to spontaneously press the lever. So, the trainer, initially, even gave rewards to crude approximations of the target behavior. For instance, even a single step taken in the right direction was reinforced. Then, another step was reinforced, and likewise Skinner would reward the rat for standing on its hind legs, then even the slightest touch on the lever was rewarded, until the rat finally pressed the lever.

The crucial aspect of this procedure is to only reward new behaviors that are closer to the targeted behavior. For instance, in the experiment with the rat, once the rat touched the lever, it wasn’t rewarded for standing on its hind legs. And, when the targeted behavior is achieved, successive approximations leading towards the targeted behavior werren’t rewarded anymore. In this way, shaping uses principles of operant conditioning to train a subject to learn a behavior by reinforcing proper behaviors and discouraging unwanted behaviors.

Steps involved in the process of Shaping

  • For starters, reinforce any behavior that is even remotely close to the desired, target behavior.
  • Next step, reinforce the behavior that is closer to the target behavior. Also, you shouldn’t reinforce the previous behavior.
  • Keep reinforcing the responses/behaviors that resembles the target behavior even more closely. Continue reinforcing the successive approximations until the target behavior is achieved.
  • Once the target behavior is achieved, only reinforce the final response.


Shaping can also be defined as a conditioning paradigm used primarily in the experimental analysis of behavior. The method of reinforcing successive approximations in order to teach a behavior has been found affective in humans and animals alike. So, it’s widely in use when it comes to training and teaching new behaviors.

Example 1: Teaching dogs how to follow verbal commands is one easy-to-understand example of shaping. Obviously, the puppies won’t be able to perform the target behavior automatically. They need to be shaped toward the desired behavior by successively rewarding the behaviors that resemble the targeted response.

Shaping is also used in human learning. Successively rewarding behaviors of a kid to shape any particular behavior is something that is highly effective.

Example 2: Let’s say a teacher is trying to teach Johnny to speak in front of the whole classroom. Given that Johnny is a shy kid, he wouldn’t be able to give a speech right away. So, instead of promising Johnny some reward for giving a speech, rewards should be given to behaviors that come close. Like, giving him a reward when he stands in front of the class. Next, when he goes in front of the class and say hello. Then, when he can read a passage from a book. And, finally when he can give a speech. The whole point is for rewards to be successive and it’s not possible to retain rewards with previous responses. In this way, shaping of behavior can be done.

Cite this article as: Praveen Shrestha, "What is shaping a behavior?," in Psychestudy, November 17, 2017, https://www.psychestudy.com/behavioral/learning-memory/operant-conditioning/what-is-shaping-behavior.