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Classical vs. Operant Conditioning: Differences and Similarities

Conditioning in psychology is a learning process where two things are repeatedly paired to form a new association. There are two main types: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Both classical and operant conditioning are forms of associative learning. While classical conditioning focuses on involuntary responses by pairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus to elicit a conditioned response, operant conditioning deals with voluntary behaviors, pairing them with consequences to strengthen or weaken the behavior. In real life, these two types of conditioning often happen together. Let’s look at the differences and similarities between classical and operant conditioning and how they occur in everyday life.

classical pavlov's dog example, operant kid doing chore example to illustrate differences  and similarities

What is conditioning in psychology?

In psychology, conditioning refers to behavioral conditioning. Conditioning is a learning process that repeatedly pairs two things together to form a new association, which is learning.

What are the types of conditioning?

The two main types of conditioning in psychology are classical and operant conditioning. They are two fundamental methods of learning through association.

Classical conditioning

  • Definition: Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, was first studied by Ivan Pavlov. It involves learning through an association between two stimuli.
  • How it works: It begins with a naturally occurring stimulus that automatically elicits a response (unconditioned stimulus leading to an unconditioned response). A neutral stimulus, which initially does not trigger the response, is then repeatedly presented alongside the unconditioned stimulus. Eventually, the neutral stimulus alone can evoke the response, which becomes a conditioned stimulus eliciting a conditioned response.​1​
  • Example: A famous example is Pavlov’s dogs, where the sound of a bell (neutral stimulus) was paired with the presentation of food (unconditioned stimulus). Eventually, the bell alone could cause the dogs to salivate (conditioned response).

Operant conditioning

  • Definition: Operant conditioning, developed by B.F. Skinner involves learning through the consequences of behavior.
  • How it Works: It is based on the idea that behaviors followed by positive consequences (reinforcements) are more likely to occur again in the future, while behaviors followed by negative consequences (punishments) are less likely to be repeated. Reinforcement (positive, like receiving a reward, and negative, like avoiding an unpleasant situation) increases the likelihood of a behavior. Punishment (adding an unpleasant consequence or removing a pleasant one) decreases the likelihood of a behavior.​2​
  • Example: A child gets a treat (positive reinforcement) for doing chores, increasing the likelihood of doing chores again. Alternatively, a teenager loses phone privileges (negative punishment) for missing curfew, decreasing the likelihood of coming home late again.

What’s the difference between classical and operant conditioning?

Classical and operant conditioning are fundamental concepts in behavioral psychology, each facilitating learning through the mechanism of association. However, they differ in how learning occurs and is reinforced. Here are the main differences between the two.​3​

AspectClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
FocusInvoluntary responsesVoluntary behaviors
Pairing to form an associationPairing a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus so that the neutral stimulus elicits a conditioned response.Pairing a behavior with a consequence that strengthens or weakens the behavior.
Elements being associatedNeutral stimulus, unconditioned stimulusBehavior, consequence
Outcome of pairingThe neutral stimulus can trigger the conditioned response.The expectation of the consequence can change the likelihood of the behavior occurring.
LearningPassive learning: the learner does not actively control the response.Active learning: the learner can control the behavior.
ExampleFeeling anxious when seeing a dog after being bitten by one.Studying for good grades to avoid being punished.
Everyday useOften used to explain how we develop emotional responses, such as phobias and cravingsOften used to explain how we learn new behaviors or habits.

What are the similarities between classical and operant conditioning?

Here are the similarities between classical and operant conditioning.

SimilarityClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
Learning through associationAssociation between a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulusAssocont between a behavior and its consequences
Rely on repetition and contiguityThe more frequently and closely in time a stimulus and response occur together, the stronger the association becomes.Consequence leads to a change in behavior
Behavioral changes over timeModifies involuntary responsesInfluences voluntary behaviors
Use of existing knowledge or experiences to reinforceUnconditioned stimulus naturally elicits a responseThe subject learns the relationship between behavior and consequences
ExtinctionNeutral stimulus begins to evoke a conditioned responseBehavior decreases when consequence stops appearing
Acquisition phaseThe conditioned response can reappear after extinctionConditioned response decreases when the conditioned stimulus is presented without an unconditioned stimulus
Spontaneous RecoveryThe conditioned response can reappear after the extinctionLearned behavior can reappear after extinction
Generalization and discriminationCan generalize or discriminate between similar stimuliCan generalize or discriminate between behaviors

Classical and operant conditioning: which is better?

One type of conditioning isn’t necessarily better than the other. Both classical and operant conditioning have their own strengths and weaknesses, and their effectiveness depends on the specific situation and goals you’re trying to achieve.

Here are the strengths and weaknesses of classical and operant conditioning.

AspectClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
Strengths– Efficient in creating automatic responses, particularly for emotional associations.- Useful for habit formation and routine building.- Subtle and indirect, making it less intrusive.– Effective in teaching new behaviors.- Behavior modification is more controllable and adaptable.- Provides a clear understanding of the consequences of behavior.
Weaknesses– Limited in controlling specific behaviors, relying on pre-existing reflexes/emotions.- Difficult to extinguish unwanted learned associations.- Less effective for complex behaviors needing conscious thought.– May lead to dependency on rewards or avoidance of punishment.- Can be viewed as manipulative or controlling.- Overuse of punishment can lead to negative emotions or aggression.
Common applications– Treating phobias and anxiety.- Building positive associations in marketing.- Developing automatic responses in therapy.– Teaching new skills or behaviors.- Behavior modification in education and training.- Animal training with rewards/punishments.

Can classical and operant conditioning occur at the same time?

Yes, classical and operant conditioning can occur at the same time. In everyday life, they often occur together to reinforce a learned behavior.

Here are some examples.

Classical conditioning enhancing operant conditioning

The clicker (a neutral stimulus) initially has no specific meaning to the dog. When your dog successfully sits on command, you immediately follow it with a treat (an unconditioned stimulus), which naturally elicits a positive response (unconditioned emotional response) from the dog.

After consistently repeating this process – the dog sits, a click is made, and then a treat is given – the dog begins to form an association between the clicker sound and the treat, leading to an anticipation of the positive experience. Consequently, the clicker transforms into a positive reinforcement, serving as a desired consequence that motivates the dog to repeat the behavior to receive the reward.

Operant conditioning enhancing classical conditioning

A student studies hard and is praised for getting good grades. The praise is a positive reinforcement leading to more studying. Over time, more hard work leads to more good results and positive emotional responses. The student starts to associate studying with feelings of accomplishment. The student now inherently finds studying a positive and rewarding activity.


  1. 1.
    Spence KW. Behavior Theory and Conditioning. Yale University Press; 1956. doi:10.1037/10029-000
  2. 2.
    Skinner BF. Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review. Published online 1950:193-216. doi:10.1037/h0054367
  3. 3.
    Kirsch I, Lynn SJ, Vigorito M, Miller RR. The role of cognition in classical and operant conditioning. J Clin Psychol. Published online 2004:369-392. doi:10.1002/jclp.10251


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