Classical and Operant Conditioning


Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a learned automatic conditioning process which occurs when two stimuli are paired creating an association between the two.  One stimuli is neutral/unrelated (conditioned stimulus), whereas the other stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) produces a known response.  Further, the neutral stimulus is presented first or coincides with the presentation of the second.  The response is automatic and involuntary, typically a physiological response such as nausea, taste aversion, salivation, pain, fear, or pleasure.  Once conditioned, the originally neutral stimulus (now conditioned stimulus) will produce the same response as the unconditioned stimulus.  Phobias, i.e., excessive fear of or toward something, are often the result of classical conditioning.  For instance, if a child is bitten by a dog when very young they may develop a fear of dogs.  Classical conditioning can be subject to both generalization and discrimination such that the child may develop a fear of all dogs (generalization), or may only be afraid of only very large black dogs (discrimination).

I have had several cats over the years demonstrate classical conditioning to the sound of a can opener.  My husband and I rarely use the can opener, except to open a can of tuna.  When we eat tuna we give the cats the tuna juice water.  My husband and I seem to only use the can opener when we make tuna dishes, so my cats’ conditioning is never given the opportunity to extinguish.

Classical conditioning is extremely beneficial from an evolutionary perspective.  For instance, learning to avoid poisonous foods or foods that make you sick is beneficial to your survival.  In fact, classical conditioning is useful for discouraging alcoholics from drinking.  The alcoholic takes a pill and whenever they drink alcohol they become physically ill.  Ideally, this results in a diminished desire for alcohol.  Similarly, learning to avoid pain is also beneficial.  It only takes one bee sting to make a person distinctly aware of what the buzzing sound nearby could mean, especially if that person is allergic to bees.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning is similar to classical conditioning in that it involves a learned response, can result in generalization as well as discrimination responses.  However, operant conditioning differs in that is far more purposeful.  Specifically, a behavior occurs, which is then positively or negatively reinforced to strengthen or weaken the behavior.  The conditioning typically involves a scheduled process of reinforcement, partial or continuous, positive or negative, to a specific behavior. It is commonly believed behaviors continue because they have been rewarded, whereas behaviors stop because they have resulted in negative consequences (Friedman & Schustack, 2012).

Operant conditioning is also sensitive to primary and secondary reinforcers.  Primary reinforcers meet primary drives or needs, such as hunger.  Secondary reinforcers help to achieve primary reinforcers.  For instance, work may serve as a primary reinforce when it provides feelings of satisfaction and self-fulfillment.  It may also serve as a secondary reinforcer because when you get paid you receive money to buy other reinforcers; such as pay your bills, purchase food, or pay for entertainment.

Operant conditioning is specifically used to modify behaviors, increase or decrease the frequency, or modify the behavior.  It works with animals and humans.  Operant conditioning is frequently used in dog training.  For instance, when potty training the puppy we take Katie (the puppy) outside and say “go potty.”  If she goes to the restroom, she is rewarded verbally with “good girl,” a treat to eat, and 15-30 minutes roaming freedom in the house.  On the other hand, if Katie has an accident in the house, she is punished by being scolded verbally with “bad potty” and being put outside.  Operant conditioning is also used by professional animal trainers to get the animals to perform elaborate tricks for entertainment or otherwise.

Positive and negative reinforcement rewards and punishments are frequently utilized when parenting.  For instance, my son has a chore chart to remind him of chores to do.  When it is complete, he gets a reward or treat.  When I catch Gabriel behaving well, I also tell him he is so.  On the other hand, when he misbehaves, I tell him his behavior is disappointing.  I am very careful never to say he is bad or disappointing, only the behavior.  When Gabriel gets what we call a DOG or FROG grade (D or F), he usually loses his video game or television privileges.  These are all examples of operant conditioning used to reinforce positive behavior such as good grades, study habits, and chores versus diminish bad grades or bad behavior.

Summary of Differences

Classical conditioning is associated with Pavlov, involves presentation of a neutral stimulus before the unconditional stimulus, and results in involuntary, automatic behaviors.  Operant conditioning is associated with Skinner, involves presentation of reinforcement after behavior, and results in behavior modification.



Friedman, H. S., & Schustack, M. W. (2012). Personality: Classic theories and modern research (5th ed.). Boston, MA: Allyn & Bacon.


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