Classical vs Operant Conditioning: Key Differences

In the field of behavioural psychology, conditioning refers to the learning process through which our behaviours change as a result of experiences. There are two primary types of conditioning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Both of these learning processes contribute to our understanding of how we acquire new knowledge and how our environment shapes our actions.

Classical conditioning was first introduced by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, in the early 20th century. It revolves around the concept of associating a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus, leading to a conditioned response.

When a conditioned stimulus (CS) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (US), classical conditioning occurs. The conditioned stimulus is typically a neutral stimulus (e.g., the sound of a tuning fork), the unconditioned stimulus is biologically potent (e.g., the taste of food), and the unconditioned response (UR) to the unconditioned stimulus is an unlearned reflex response (e.g., salivation).

After repeated coupling, the organism demonstrates a conditioned response (CR) to the conditioned stimulus when it is presented alone.

In other words, an initially neutral event starts to trigger a specific response after it has been repeatedly paired with a stimulus that naturally elicits that response. Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, where he paired the sound of a bell with food, resulted in the dogs salivating at the sound of the bell alone, illustrating the power of classical conditioning in forming new associations and behavioural responses.

On the other hand, operant conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, and focuses on the relationship between behaviour and its consequences. In this learning process, an individual’s actions are shaped by the rewards or punishments that follow.

If a behaviour leads to a positive outcome, it is likely to be repeated, whereas if it results in a negative outcome, the behaviour is less likely to be repeated in the future. The principles of operant conditioning have been applied in various fields, such as education, therapy, and even animal training.

Both classical and operant conditioning emerged from the behaviourist school of thought in psychology, which emphasizes the role of environmental factors in shaping our actions. As a result, the learning processes presented by these two forms of conditioning share some similarities, such as the idea that behaviours can be modified through specific consequences or associations with external stimuli.

However, the two differ in the way they approach the learning process, with classical conditioning focusing on creating new associations between stimuli and responses, while operant conditioning is centered around modifying behaviours through reinforcement or punishment.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, discovered classical conditioning through his experiments on dogs. Pavlov observed that dogs started to salivate when they saw the lab assistant who fed them, even before the food was presented.

This led him to explore the concept of learning through association, wherein a neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus capable of producing a conditioned response when paired with an unconditioned stimulus.

In his experiments, Pavlov presented a neutral stimulus, such as a bell, before providing the dog with food, which is the unconditioned stimulus. Over time, the dog learned to associate the sound of the bell with the arrival of food, resulting in salivation, the conditioned response, even in the absence of the unconditioned stimulus.

Examples of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning plays a significant role in shaping everyday behaviors. Examples include habits formed through associations between stimuli and responses, such as:

Commercials: Advertisers use attractive visuals and sounds to create associations with their products, triggering positive emotions or cravings in consumers.

Phobias: People may develop irrational fears of certain objects or situations due to negative experiences or associations they have built over time, such as fear of spiders due to a painful spider bite.

Taste aversions: An unpleasant experience associated with a particular food can create a strong aversion to that food, such as feeling nauseous after eating a specific dish.

Classical conditioning also has implications for health and memory. One practical application is in the treatment of anxiety disorders, where a fear response can be diminished through extinction, the gradual weakening of the conditioned response over time.

For example, through systematic desensitization, individuals facing a fear of heights may gradually build a new positive association by exposing themselves to increasing heights while practicing relaxation techniques.

Additionally, classical conditioning can impact memory and cognition, particularly in aging. Linked to the formation of learned associations, the process may influence the development of cognitive decline and memory loss in older individuals.

Models of Classical Conditioning

Various models have been proposed to explain the mechanisms of classical conditioning. Some notable models include:

  • Stimulus-Substitution Theory: The conditioned stimulus essentially substitutes the unconditioned stimulus, activating the same neural pathways in the brain.
  • Rescorla-Wagner Model: This model highlights the importance of predicting events and adjusting associations based on the accuracy of those predictions. According to the Rescorla-Wagner model, there is a maximum quantity of conditioning that can occur when two stimuli are paired. The unconditioned stimulus’s nature is a factor in determining this limit. For instance, pairing a bell with a juicy steak is more likely to induce salivation than coupling the bell with a piece of dry bread, while pairing the bell with a piece of cardboard is more likely to induce salivation.
  • Temporal Coding Hypothesis: This theory suggests that the timing of the stimuli presentation is crucial in forming associations, with the conditioned stimulus acting as a predictor for the unconditioned stimulus.

These models provide insights into the complex nature of classical conditioning and how it influences behaviours, emotions, and cognition in both humans and animals.

Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner was an American psychologist who greatly contributed to the development of the concept of operant conditioning. Skinner believed that behaviour is shaped by its consequences and that voluntary behaviour can be modified using reinforcement and punishment.

According to his theory, the stimulus-response relationship in operant conditioning is different from classical Pavlovian conditioning, as it involves voluntary behaviour.

Operant conditioning is widely used in various settings, including education, parenting, and animal training. For example, teachers may use tokens or praise to encourage good behaviour, parents might set up reward systems for completing chores, while animal trainers may use treats to reinforce desired actions.

Behaviour modification techniques are widely applied to help people change unwanted behaviours, such as smoking, by manipulating the consequences associated with those behaviours.

Reinforcement and Punishment

Reinforcement is a process that increases the likelihood of a specific behaviour occurring again. It can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a desirable stimulus after a behaviour, whereas negative reinforcement involves the removal of an aversive or undesirable stimulus.

On the other hand, punishment is designed to decrease the probability of a behaviour and can also be positive or negative. Positive punishment involves presenting an aversive stimulus, while negative punishment involves removing a desirable stimulus.

Extinction occurs when a previously reinforced behaviour is no longer reinforced, either positively or negatively. During extinction, the probability of a behaviour declines.

Due to the learning factor of repeated instances becoming necessary to receive reinforcement, occasional reinforcement can lead to an even longer delay before behaviour extinction when compared to reinforcement being given at every opportunity prior to extinction.

Schedules of Reinforcement

Schedules of reinforcement refer to how and when reinforcement is presented following a behaviour. There are four primary schedules:

  • Continuous reinforcement: the desired behaviour is reinforced every time it occurs.
  • Fixed ratio schedule: reinforcement is provided after a specific number of responses.
  • Variable-ratio schedule: reinforcement is provided after an unpredictable number of responses.
  • Variable-interval schedule: reinforcement is provided after an unpredictable amount of time has elapsed.

These schedules impact how quickly and effectively behaviour is modified.


Both classical and operant conditioning contribute to shaping behaviours, but they do so through different mechanisms. In classical conditioning, the emphasis is on the association between the stimulus and the involuntary response. In the case of operant conditioning, the focus lies on the consequences that either reinforce or diminish voluntary behaviours.

While both theories have been shown to be effective in explaining aspects of human behaviour and learning, they also have their limitations. Classical conditioning may not account for complex, higher-order mental processes such as cognition and emotions, whereas operant conditioning might not fully capture the nuances of involuntary responses and instincts.

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