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Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Classical and operant conditioning are two central concepts in behavioral psychology. They describe two types of learning using a behavioristic approach. Conditioning is frequently used in everyday life. Let’s look at some examples and the main difference between classical and operant conditioning. We’ll examine how they’re used by parents to modify children’s behavior and the impact of this parenting practice.

Classical Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov Behaviorism

Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who discovered the concept of classical conditioning that had a major influence in the branch of psychology called behaviorism in the early 20th century. He is known as the father of classical conditioning.

Pavlov first discovered that his dogs salivated whenever it was served food. The food, a biologically potent stimulus, is called an unconditioned stimulus or a primary reinforcer.

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. The ringing bell is called a neutral stimulus.

But after repeating this procedure for a number of times, ringing the bell on its own could cause the dog to salivate. Now the dog had learned to associate the bell’s sound with food and a new behavior, salivation on ringing the bell, had formed.

The ringing bell was an originally neutral stimulus, but then it become a conditioned stimulus that could elicit the same response as the unconditioned stimulus (food).

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

toddler sits on a potty while playing with toy blocks (example of difference between conditioning)

What Is Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, also known as Pavlovian 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.

Therefore, classical conditioning is also known as 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 a couple of classical conditioning examples:

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 door slamming.

A mother comes home with a big shopping bag that is usually filled with new toys for the 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 ExamplesFather slams doorMother brings home a big shopping bag
Unconditioned stimulusyellingnew toys
Neutral stimulus turned conditioned stimulussound of door slammingsight of big shopping bag
Conditioned response / Respondent behaviorchild trembleschild is excited
Child and woman are excited to check out what is in the 5 colorful shopping bags. Classical conditioning causes them to feel excited even before seeing what's exactly inside.

Operant Conditioning

What Is 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 responses that produce a satisfying effect become more likely to be repeated, while responses that produce an unfavorable effect are less likely to occur again.

This law of effect was developed based on observing animal behavior, but it applies to human in many situations, too​4​.

Law of effect example

For instance, if a child opens a box and is happy to find a 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.

B.F. Skinner

BF Skinner, an American psychologist, rejected the idea that mental states such as “satisfying” or “unfavorable” were necessary in 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 association process can be carried out using different timings, called schedules of reinforcement.

Operant Conditioning Examples

Operant conditioning is used extensively by parents and teachers.

For example, whenever a child goes to bed on time, his parent reads him a bedtime story. The story reading is a positive reinforcement used to increase target behavior (going to bed on time).

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

Operant Conditioning ExamplesParent reads bedtime storyTrainer gives treat
Reinforcementreading storygiving treat
Operant behaviorgo to bed on timeperform trick
Woman wearing glasses reads bedtime story to child in bed, an example of operant conditioning.

Differences Between Classical And Operant Conditioning

There is a key distinction or difference 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 engage in a new behavior because the association is made through naturally occurring event. On the other hand, operant conditioning 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
Difference between two conditioningchange involuntary behavior/reflexchange voluntary behavior
Difference between two conditioningpassive learning (involuntary learning)active learning (voluntary learning)
Difference between two conditioningturn neutral stimulus into conditioned stimulus to elicit a behaviorreinforcement / punishment after a behavior to strengthen / weaken it

Operant Conditioning And Parenting

Operant conditioning is often used by parents and teachers to modify children’s behavior. While some measures appear to be effective on the surface, there are many hidden problems.

One of the biggest problems of behaviorism is that it treats human beings as similar entities with no regard to one’s mental state or internal processing​7​. i.e. Given the same stimulus, we all should respond in the same way.


It doesn’t care about what goes on inside the person or what that person thinks or feels.

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, e.g. drawing art, receiving a reward to do so actually decreases the child’s interest in it. So the “reinforcement” reduces the behavior instead of strengthening it which behaviorists predict. Behaviorism fails to explain phenomenon like this because higher mental processes such as “free will” does matter.

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 you already know (hopefully) that this doesn’t work.

First, your child may behave perfectly in front of you, but most likely, they won’t when you’re not watching.

Second, do you want your kids to (really) respect you, have a good relationship with you and visit you when you’re old and they’ve grown up? Well, most authoritarian parents don’t get that.

A little girl sits on floor and cries. A broken toy is on the ground. Instrumental conditioning can be powerful in conditioning a child's emotions.

Final Thoughts On Classical and Operant Conditioning

If used appropriately, operant conditioning can be very useful in teaching young children new behavior, e.g. give a sticker to potty-train a toddler, award first grader a star for raising his hand before speaking, etc.

However, always remember that discipline means to teach. If, instead of teaching, we use classical and operant conditioning, such as punishment or manipulation, to elicit a behavior, it will eventually backfire. Because children are not lab rats that respond to stimuli without being affected by the meaning of a treatment.


  1. 1.
    Spence KW. Behavior Theory and Conditioning. Yale University Press; 1956. doi:10.1037/10029-000
  2. 2.
    DICKINSON A. CONDITIONING AND ASSOCIATIVE LEARNING. British Medical Bulletin. Published online May 1981:165-168. doi:10.1093/oxfordjournals.bmb.a071695
  3. 3.
    Hilgard ER, Marquis DG. Hilgard and Marquis’ Conditioning and Learning (2nd Ed.). Appleton-Century-Crofts; 1961. doi:10.1037/14591-000
  4. 4.
    Thorndike EL. The Law of Effect. The American Journal of Psychology. Published online December 1927:212. doi:10.2307/1415413
  5. 5.
    Skinner BF. Are theories of learning necessary? Psychological Review. Published online 1950:193-216. doi:10.1037/h0054367
  6. 6.
    GRANT DA. Classical and Operant Conditioning. In: Categories of Human Learning. Elsevier; 1964:1-31. doi:10.1016/b978-1-4832-3145-7.50006-6
  7. 7.
    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
  8. 8.
    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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