Classical vs. Operant Conditioning – Learn About Learning

The human mind is a fascinating subject, and it is still not fully understood despite thousands of years of philosophy, research, and experimentation. How we learn is an important field of study, and it can be of use to parents, teachers, employers, and even just normal people trying to make a change in their lives.

In this article, we will be looking at two opposing schools of thought on how this learning process occurs. The dichotomy of classical vs. operant conditioning is going to be our focus, though both are worthy in their own right as psychological theories.

Classical Conditioning

You may have come across classical conditioning already, in the form of the well-known story about its original proponent, Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov. His interest in the concept began when he was studying digestion in dogs. He noticed that when they saw the technician who fed them their meat, they began to drool in anticipation. He realized that it was the sight of their feeder, rather than the food itself, that was making them react.

He put this observation to the test by changing the stimulus that the dogs associated with food. He used a variety of stimuli, such as the sound of a metronome, an electric buzzer, and a harmonium (though not a bell, as commonly believed) shortly before they were given their meal. As Pavlov predicted, the dogs needed only a few repetitions – after that, when they heard the metronome, they would again begin to drool in anticipation of eating.

Pavlov surmised that the dogs’ reaction to these stimuli were caused by what he called a ‘conditional reflex.’ This process of learning by association was then expanded upon by an American named John Watson, who took Pavlov’s ideas a step further by testing them on a young boy called Little Albert. Through the use of shocking loud noises, the 9-month-old infant was trained to be afraid of white rats, when he had displayed no such fear before the experiment.

Examples of Classical Conditioning

  • If you always listen to a certain sad song after breaking up with a partner, then you’ll feel sad in the future whenever you hear that song, no matter how you felt prior to hearing it.
  • Some people smoke a cigarette every time they answer the phone, even if they didn’t want one before it rang.
  • Being afraid of dogs because you were once bitten by one as a child is common too.

Uses of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning has been used in a number of different behavioral therapies to help people stop performing undesirable actions or behaviors. In aversion therapy, patients are conditioned to associate something unpleasant with a behavior that they want to stop. For example, if someone is constantly biting their nails to the quick, then coating their nails in something that tastes horrible will train them to associate that terrible flavor with the action of nail-biting.

Graduated exposure therapy, also known as systematic desensitization, is another therapeutic use. For example, if a patient has a phobia, they are exposed to something that triggers a minor response. Once this causes less fear due to them becoming more used to it, they are presented with something that causes a higher fear response. This desensitization continues up until they can be faced with the most anxiety-inducing scenario associated with their phobia without a fear response.

Operant Conditioning

The concept of operant conditioning had been around since the turn of the 20th century, thanks to the work of Edward Thorndike. But its inventor is considered to be the American psychologist, B.L. Skinner. Skinner was an admirer of Pavlov’s work, but his theory takes a different view of why behavioral patterns develop.

According to operant conditioning, the likelihood of a behavior occurring more or less often is a result of reinforcement or punishment respectively. Here’s how these two responses to a behavior break down:

  • Positive Reinforcement – When a behavior is inherently rewarding, or if it is externally rewarded in order to make that behavior occur more often. For example, giving a child a present after they get good marks at school, so that they will strive to do so again in the future.
  • Negative Reinforcement – When a behavior results in the removal of something unpleasant. For example, if you have a headache, and take some painkillers, the headache goes away. This will teach you to take painkillers again whenever you have a headache, as it removes that unpleasant condition.
  • (Positive) Punishment – When an undesirable behavior results in something bad happening to the one who committed it, in order to stop the behavior from reoccurring. For example, if a student doesn’t complete their homework, they will have to attend detention.
  • (Negative) Punishment – When an undesirable behavior is responded to by taking away something pleasant. For example, when a parent catches their teenager drinking and punishes them by taking away their PlayStation.

Uses of Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning has been used in education, as well as in the training of animals, for a long time. Rewarding good behavior with a treat, and answering poor behavior with a punishment, is a standard approach for many people, even if they’ve never heard of the psychological term associated with the practice.

It has also led to an increase in understanding of the mechanisms of addiction, for both positive and negative ends. Using drugs is an inherently rewarding action, and it acts as a positive reinforcement of the action. No longer using the drug can then result in withdrawal and cravings, which function as a punishment of that behavior. Taking the drug to alleviate these effects functions as a negative reinforcement of the drug use.

Ring My Bell

Here is the most important thing you should know about classical vs. operant conditioning. Although they’re sometimes treated as opposing theories, these two psychological approaches to human behavior are not at odds with one another. In fact, they can be applied in a complementary fashion depending on what the desired result is.



Classical vs Operant Conditioning