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Difference Between Classical vs Operant Conditioning

The main difference between classical and operant conditioning is that classical conditioning associates involuntary behavior with a stimulus while operant conditioning associates voluntary action with a consequence.

Classical and operant conditioning are two central concepts in behavioral psychology.

Both classical and operant conditioning are forms of associative learning using a behavioristic approach.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov Behaviorism

In the early 20th century, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov discovered the concept of classical conditioning which had a major influence on the branch of psychology called behaviorism.

He is known as the father of classical conditioning.

Pavlov first discovered that his dogs salivated whenever they were served food.

He then came up with an experiment.

In this experiment, whenever he gave food to his dogs, he also rang a bell.

Normally, ringing a bell does not produce any specific response other than getting the dog’s attention.

But after repeating this procedure a number of times, the sound of a bell on its own could cause the dog to salivate, even without the presentation of food.

Now Pavlov’s dog had learned to associate the sound of the bell with food.

A new behavior – salivation on ringing the bell – had formed.

A man squats, training a dog that sits in front of him.

What Is Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning, is the procedure of learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus that already brings about an involuntary response, or unconditioned response, with a new, neutral stimulus so that this new stimulus can also bring about the same response. The new stimulus then becomes a conditioned stimulus and the newly learned behavior is a conditioned response.

In his dog training experiment, the dog food was an unconditioned stimulus or a primary reinforcer.

In classical conditioning, unconditioned stimuli are biologically potent stimuli that can lead to involuntary responses. In this case, the involuntary response was salivation and it was an unconditioned response.

The ringing bell was originally a neutral stimulus.

But after the training, it became a conditioned stimulus that could also elicit the same response as the food.

When this happened, the salivation became a conditioned response​1​.

Therefore, classical conditioning is learning by association​2,3​.

Classical Conditioning Examples

There are many classical conditioning examples in our daily life.

Some are intentionally and some are not.

Here are some examples of classical conditioning:

Example 1: A father comes home and slams the door when he has had a bad day at work. Then it’s usually followed by him yelling at his children for random reasons. So the kids have learned to associate door slamming with being yelled at. Now the children have been conditioned to tremble every time they hear the sound of a door slamming.

Example 2: A mother usually comes home with a big shopping bag that is filled with new toys for her child. So whenever the child sees her mother come home with a big shopping bag, she is happy and excited because she has associated the bag with receiving new toys.

Classical Conditioning ExamplesA father slams doorA mother comes home with a big shopping bag
Unconditioned stimulusyellingnew toys
Neutral stimulus turned conditioned stimulussound of door slammingthe sight of a big shopping bag
Conditioned response / Respondent behaviorchild trembleschild is excited

Operant Conditioning

The theory of Operant conditioning was developed based on Thorndike’s work on Law of Effect which introduced the concept of “reinforcement”.

What Is The Law of Effect

Through observing the behavior of cats trying to escape a puzzle box, American psychologist, Edward L. Thorndike, developed the Law of Effect which states that a response that produces a satisfying effect becomes more likely to be repeated, while a response that produces an unfavorable effect is less likely to occur again. The satisfying effect is a reinforcement that reinforces the response.

This Law of Effect was developed based on observing animal behavior, but Thorndike believed it applied to humans in many situations, too​4​.

Law of Effect example

For instance, if a child opens a box and is happy to find candy, he is more likely to open the same box again in the future.

However, if the child opens the box and is scared by a spider jumping out, he most likely won’t open that box again.

BF Skinner

B.F. Skinner, an American psychologist, did not believe in free will.

He rejected the idea that mental states such as “satisfying” or “unfavorable” were necessary for understanding human behavior​5​.

He developed the theory of operant conditioning through observable stimulus and behavior, instead of thinking or feeling.

Skinner’s theory asserts that behavior could be controlled by its consequences.

Reinforcement and punishment are the processes of applying a discriminative stimulus to increases or decrease target behavior.

What Is Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning, also known as instrumental conditioning, is the procedure of learning to increase or decrease a voluntary behavior using reinforcement or punishment. The learning process can be carried out using different timings, called schedules of reinforcement.

Operant Conditioning Examples

Operant conditioning is used extensively by parents at home and teachers in classrooms.

Example 1: Whenever a child goes to bed on time, her parent reads her a bedtime story. The story reading is a positive reinforcement used to increase target behavior (going to bed on time).

Example 2: If a student raises his hand before he speaks, the teacher gives him a gold star sticker. The student learns to raise his hand before he talks in class.

Example 3: Animal trainers frequently use operant conditioning to train animals to do tricks. When a dog does a trick correctly, the dog trainer awards it with a treat. The dog learns to perform tricks to get treats.

Operant Conditioning ExamplesThe parent reads a bedtime storyTeacher awards a gold star stickerTrainer gives treat
Reinforcementreading a storygetting a stickergetting a treat
Operant behaviorgo to bed on timeraise hand before speakingperform trick

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

Here are the key differences between classical and operant conditioning​6​.

  • Classical conditioning associates involuntary behavior with a stimulus while operant conditioning associates voluntary action with a consequence.
  • Classical conditioning is passive in the sense that the learner cannot choose to engage or not to engage in a new behavior because the association is made through natural response. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves the learner actively choosing to receive the reinforcement or punishment by performing or not performing the target behavior.
Classical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
Similarities learning by association learning by association
Differencechange involuntary behavior/reflexchange voluntary behavior
Differencepassive learning (involuntary learning)active learning (voluntary learning)
Differenceturn neutral stimuli into conditioned stimuli to elicit a behaviorapply reinforcement/punishment after behavior to strengthen/weaken it

Conditioning And Parenting

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are often used by parents and teachers in everyday life to modify children’s behavior.

While some measures appear to be effective on the surface, there are many pitfalls. In particular, using behaviorism to parent confuses voluntary and involuntary behaviors.

Pitfall 1: Treating voluntary behavior as involuntary behavior

One of the biggest problems of applying behaviorism in parenting is that it treats human beings as similar entities with no regard to one’s mental state or internal processing​7​.

The belief is that given the same stimulus, we all should respond in the same way without the ability to choose otherwise.

The theory doesn’t take into account what goes on inside the person or what that person thinks or feels.

To put it bluntly, using behaviorism to parent is treating children like animals.

Children should do whatever we tell them without thinking for themselves.

Voluntary behavior is essentially involuntary under this theory.

For example, behaviorists believe that when a child is given a reinforcement to do something, the child will continue or do more of that activity.

This has been proven to be not true because mental states and inner processing do matter​8​.

Studies have shown that if a child is given a reinforcement to do something he already enjoys, he will do less of it.

When a child is intrinsically motivated to do something such as drawing art, receiving a reward for doing that actually decreases the child’s interest in it.

The “reinforcement” reduces the behavior instead of strengthening it as behaviorists predict.

Behaviorism fails to explain a phenomenon like this because higher mental processes such as “free will” do matter.

Pitfall 2: Treating involuntary behavior as voluntary behavior

Another problem is that parents who use behaviorism to parent do not differentiate between voluntary and involuntary behavior. 

For instance, when a toddler is overwhelmed by emotions he cannot control, he throws a tantrum. The parent punishes him believing it is a voluntary behavior he can change. If it doesn’t work, the parent gives increasingly harsher punishment, which traumatizes the toddler.

If behaviorism were the holy grail of parenting, then we would have all beaten our kids into submission and they would’ve done everything we tell them to.

In fact, this is what most authoritarian parents believe.

But we know that this doesn’t work.

The child may behave perfectly in front of the parent, but most likely, they won’t when the parent is not watching.

Children raised by authoritarian parents tend to show more behavioral problems​9​.

Final Thoughts On Classical and Operant Conditioning

If used appropriately, conditioning can be very useful in teaching young children new behavior in daily life, e.g. give a sticker to potty-train a toddler, award a first-grader a star for behaving in class, etc.

However, the important thing to remember is that discipline means teaching.

Replacing proper teaching with punishment or manipulation will eventually backfire.

Children are not lab rats that respond to stimuli indiscriminately without being affected by this type of learning.


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    Hilgard ER, Marquis DG. Hilgard and Marquis’ Conditioning and Learning (2nd Ed.). Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1961. doi:10.1037/14591-000
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    Bargh JA, Ferguson MJ. Beyond behaviorism: On the automaticity of higher mental processes. Psychological Bulletin. Published online 2000:925-945. doi:10.1037/0033-2909.126.6.925
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    Thompson A, Hollis C, Richards ? D. Authoritarian parenting attitudes as a risk for conduct problems. European Child & Adolescent Psychiatry. Published online April 1, 2003:84-91. doi:10.1007/s00787-003-0324-4


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