Basic Psychology, Learning and Memory

Classical Conditioning VS Operant Conditioning

Learning can be understood as the fairly long-lasting change in the behaviour, arising out of the experience. It is useful for us to adapt ourselves according to the environment. The simplest form of learning is called conditioning (Conditioning is a type of learning that links some sort of trigger or stimulus to a human behavior or response), which can be of two kinds, i.e. classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical and operant conditioning are two important concepts central to behavioral psychology. While both result in learning, the processes are quite different.

Differences between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

  Classical Conditioning Operant Conditioning
Definition Classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus. Operant conditionings a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior.
Discovered By 220px-Ivan_Pavlov_NLM3.jpgClassical conditioning was discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov in the early 1900s. 220px-B.F._Skinner_at_Harvard_circa_1950.jpgOperant  conditioning, it was propounded in the year 1938 by B.F. Skinner, who was an American Physiologist.
Learning The theory of Classical Conditioning deals with the learning process leading us to gain a new behavior via the process of association. Operant conditioning is a form of learning which explains the relation of behaviors on certain rewards and consequences.
Deals With Internal mental thoughts and brain mechanisms play a huge role in associative learning. The study of the theory only deals with expressible behaviors and not any internal mental thoughts and brain mechanisms.
Works By ccccccccccccccccc.pngClassical Conditioning works by pairing involuntary response with stimulus. After which, unconditioned response becomes conditioned response. oooooooooooOperant Conditioning works by applying two major concepts, Reinforcements and Punishments, after the behavior is executed, which causes the rate of behavior to increase or decrease.
Experiment X10729464-7[1].jpgPavlov’s dog experiment is a base for the establishment of classical conditioning theory and its concepts. skinner box.jpgSkinner’s Skinner box experiment with a rat is the base for operant conditioning theory and its concepts.


Along with the differences there are also various similarities between these two forms of conditioning learning. The major similarity lies in its application. Both these conditioning learning techniques are used to teach a new behavior to an organism. Despite different techniques, the major goal remains the same.

Both of these techniques have certain limitations when applying it in real life. These techniques are also applied unknowingly. For instance, a teacher punishing a student is an example of operant conditioning. On the other hand, we call our pets with a certain signal before we treat them with food. The dog then associates the timing of food with the signal, which is an example of classical conditioning.

Basic Psychology, Learning and Memory

Operant Conditioning

By the 1920s, John B. Watson had left academic psychology, and other behaviorists were becoming influential, proposing new forms of learning other than classical conditioning. Perhaps the most important of these was Burrhus Frederic Skinner. Although, for obvious reasons, he is more commonly known as B.F. Skinner.Skinner’s views were slightly less extreme than those of Watson(1913). Skinner believed that we do have such a thing as a mind, but that it is simply more productive to study observable behavior rather than internal mental events.The work of Skinner was rooted in a view that classical conditioning was far too simplistic to be a complete explanation of complex human behavior. He believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach operant conditioning.

Operant conditioning(sometimes referred to as instrumental conditioning) is a method of learning that occurs through rewards and punishments for behavior. Through operant conditioning, an association is made between a behavior and a consequence for that behavior.For example, when a lab rat presses a blue button, he receives a food pellet as a reward, but when he presses the red button he receives a mild electric shock.As a result, he learns to press the blue button but avoid the red button.



But operant conditioning is not just something that takes place in experimental settings while training lab animals; it also plays a powerful role in everyday learning. Reinforcement and punishment take place almost every day in natural settings as well as in more structured settings such as the classroom or therapy sessions.

Components of Operant Conditioning

There are several key concepts in operant conditioning.



Reinforcement Responses from the environment that increase the probability of a behavior being repeated. Reinforcers can be either positive or negative.

Positive reinforcement is giving something pleasant after a behavior. This increases the probability that the behavior will continue. Examples are:
  • Receiving praise after a musical performance would increase the amount that you perform.
  • A teacher complimenting students when they answer correctly will increase that behavior.

Negative reinforcement is taking away something unpleasant as a result of the behavior that is acceptable. This is also meant to increase the behavior. Examples are:

  • It is very noisy outside so you turn on the television to mask the noise. Turning on the radio decreased the unpleasant noise.
  • A teacher exempts student from the final test if they have perfect attendance. So, the teacher is taking away something unpleasant to increase behavior.


Punishment Responses from the environment that decrease the likelihood of a behavior being repeated. Punishment weakens behavior.

Positive punishment is used to decrease a behavior and is presenting something unpleasant after the behavior. Examples are:
  • An employee exhibits bad behavior at work and the boss criticizes him. The behavior will decrease because of the boss’s criticism.
  • When a student misbehaves in class, she receives a time out.
  • A child gets a spanking when he puts his hand in the cookie jar.

Negative punishment is also used to decrease a behavior and is removing something pleasant after the behavior. Examples are:

  • An employee is habitually late for work so begins losing the privilege of listening to music while working. The behavior will decrease because of losing a privilege.
  • Kevin trashes his sister’s room and Mom told him he could not go camping with his friends.


Basic Psychology, Learning and Memory

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a type of learning that had a major influence on the school of thought in psychology known as behaviorism. Discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.The discovery was not intentional. He came across it by accident while conducting experiments on digestion in the early 1900s. Pavlov then decided to devote his entire life. Pavlov first discovered classical conditioning serendipity when he was experimenting on his dog ‘Circa’ in 1905. He also went on to win the Nobel Prize in science for his discovery.

The Development of Classical Conditioning Theory

Phase 1: Before Conditioning

At first he thought that there is no need to teach some responses to dogs (like salivating when the food is near), and that these responses are hard-wired to dog’s brain. He termed these as Unconditioned Responses(UCR).During this phase of the processes, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) results in an unconditioned response (UCR). For example, presenting food (the UCS) naturally and automatically triggers a salivation response (the UCR).


Phase 2: During Conditioning

Then one day he observed that these dogs also start salivating when a bell was ranged and food was served everyday. This made him realize that these dogs have learnt to associate the food with the bell and this has triggered the same response (salivation) as before. During the second phase of the classical conditioning process, the previously neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with the unconditioned stimulus. As a result of this pairing, an association between the previously neutral stimulus and the UCS is formed. At this point, the once neutral stimulus becomes known as the conditioned stimulus (CS). The subject has now been conditioned to respond to this stimulus.

Phase 3: After Conditioning

Once the association has been made between the UCS and the CS, presenting the conditioned stimulus alone will come to evoke a response even without the unconditioned stimulus. The resulting response is known as the conditioned response (CR).

classical conditioning diagram

  • UnConditioned Stimulus(UCS) is one that unconditionally, naturally, and automatically triggers a response. For example, when you smell one of your favorite foods, you may immediately feel very hungry.

  • UnConditioned Response(UCR) is the unlearned response that occurs naturally in response to the unconditioned stimulus.

  • Conditioned Stimulus(CS) is previously neutral stimulus that, after becoming associated with the unconditioned stimulus, eventually comes to trigger a conditioned response.

  • Conditioned Response(CR) is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus.

classical conditioning

Key Principles of Classical Conditioning

Behaviorists have described a number of different phenomena associated with classical conditioning.

1. Acquisition

Acquisition is the initial stage of learning when a response is first established and gradually strengthened. During the acquisition phase of classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with an unconditioned stimulus. After an association is made, the subject will begin to emit a behavior in response to the previously neutral stimulus, which is now known as a conditioned stimulus. It is at this point that we can say that the response has been acquired.

2. Extinction

Extinction is when the occurrences of a conditioned response decreases or disappears. In classical conditioning, this happens when a conditioned stimulus is no longer paired with an unconditioned stimulus.

3. Spontaneous Recovery

Sometimes a learned response can suddenly reemerge even after a period of extinction. Spontaneous Recovery is the reappearance of the conditioned response after a rest period or period of lessened response. If the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are no longer associated, extinction will occur very rapidly after a spontaneous recovery.

4. Stimulus Generalization

Stimulus Generalization is the tendency for the conditioned stimulus to evoke similar responses after the response has been conditioned.

In John B. Watson’s famous Little Albert Experiment, for example, a small child was conditioned to fear a white rat. The child demonstrated stimulus generalization by also exhibiting fear in response to other fuzzy white objects including stuffed toys and Watson own hair.

5. Stimulus Discrimination

Discrimination is the ability to differentiate between a conditioned stimulus and other stimuli that have not been paired with an unconditioned stimulus.