Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Classical vs Operant Conditioning

Classical and Operant conditioning can be viewed as two forms of associative learning (learning that two events occur together) between which there is a significant difference. These two forms of learning have their roots in Behavioral Psychology. This school of psychology was concerned about the external behavior of individuals as it was observable. On this logical stance, they rejected the idea of studying scientifically as it could not be observed. This branch also engaged in scientific research and stressed the importance of empiricism. Classical conditioning and operant conditioning can be considered as two of the greatest contributions made to psychology that explain two different dimensions of learning. Through this article let us examine the differences between classical and operant conditioning while gaining a better understanding of the individual theories.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning was a theory introduced by Ivan Pavlov. This is a type of learning which explains that some learning can be involuntary, emotional, and physiological responses. At the time Pavlov introduced classical conditioning, he was working on another research. He noticed that the dog that he used for the experiment would begin to salivate not only when the food was given but even on hearing his footsteps. It is this incident that influenced Pavlov to study the concept of learning. He conducted an experiment with the intention of understanding this concept. For this, he used a dog and provided it with meat powder, each time the dog was given food or even at the mere sight, or smell of it, his dog would begin to salivate. This can be understood in the following manner.

Unconditioned Stimuli (meat powder) → Unconditioned Response (Salivating)

Next, he sounded a bell to see whether the dog would salivate, but it did not.

Neutral Stimuli (Bell) → No Response ( No Salivating)

Then, he sounded the bell and provided the meat powder, which made the dog salivate.

Unconditioned Stimuli (meat powder) + Neutral Stimuli (Bell) → Unconditioned Response (Salivating)

After carrying on this procedure for a while, he realized that the dog would salivate every time the bell would ring, even if the food is not presented.

Conditioned Stimuli (Bell) → Conditioned Response (Salivating)

Through the experiment, Pavlov highlighted that neutral stimuli can be turned into a conditioned stimuli, producing a conditioned response.

Even in the day to day life, classical conditioning is apparent in all of us. Imagine a situation where a partner tells ‘we need to talk.’ Upon hearing the words, we feel worried and anxious. There are many other instances where classical conditioning applies to real life such as the school bell, fire alarms, etc. This is also used for therapies such as aversive therapy used for alcoholics, flooding and systematic desensitization used for phobias, etc. This highlights the nature of classical conditioning.

Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov

What is Operant Conditioning?

It was the American psychologist, B. F Skinner who developed the Operant conditioning. He believed that behavior is sustained by reinforcement and rewards and not by free will. He was famous for Skinner box and the teaching machine. This involved conditioning the voluntary, controllable behavior and not the automatic physiological responses as in the case of classical conditioning. In operant conditioning, actions are associated with consequences by the organism. Actions that are reinforced become strengthened whereas actions that are punished are being weakened. He introduced two types of reinforcements; Positive reinforcement and Negative reinforcement.

In positive reinforcement, the individual is presented with pleasant stimuli that result in the increase of behavior. Giving chocolate to a student for good behavior can be taken as an example. Negative reinforcement is the absence of unpleasant stimuli. For example, finishing off a school assignment early rather than at the last minute, removes the tension that the student feels. In both cases, reinforcement works towards increasing a particular behavior that is considered as good.

Skinner also spoke of two types of punishments which decrease a particular behavior. They are, Positive punishment and Negative punishment

Positive punishment involves adding something unpleasant such as paying a fine, whereas Negative punishment involves removing something pleasant such as limiting the hours of leisure activities. This highlights that classical conditioning and operant conditioning are different from one another.

 Classical vs Operant Conditioning

B. F Skinner

What is the difference between Classical and Operant Conditioning?

• Origin:

• Both classical and operant conditioning comes from Behavioral Psychology.

• Founders:

• Classical conditioning was developed by Ivan Pavlov.

• Operant conditioning was developed by B.F Skinner.

• Theory:

• Classical conditioning highlights that neutral stimuli can be turned into a conditioned stimuli, producing a conditioned response.

• Operant conditioning involves conditioning voluntary, controllable behavior.

• Association between behavior and results:

• In classical conditioning, the association cannot be controlled.

• In operant conditioning, the association between behavior and results is learned.

• Response:

• The response in classical conditioning is automatic and involuntary.

• In operant conditioning, the response is voluntary.


Images Courtesy: 

  1. Ivan Pavlov via Wikicommons (Public Domain) 
  2. B. F. Skinner by Silly rabbit (CC BY 3.0)