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Operant and Classical Conditioning

Behaviourism is a term considered for evident and observable behaviours in human beings and animals. It believes that people acquire behaviours through conditioning. The entire process involves interaction with the environment and the behaviours are shaped with the type of responses that one accords the environmental stimuli. The two main behaviourist psychologists who conducted research into behaviour were Skinner and Pavlov, who each independently looked into Operant and Classical conditioning respectively.

Social learning theory suggests that the elements of learning include attention, retention, motor reproduction, and motivation. At the initial stage, you observe the act that you are trying to learn about; therefore, it has your attention. Secondly, you have to retain the information and remember it. Afterwards, you have to be able to replicate the action in motor reproduction, and lastly, the motivation gives you the desire to learn the entire act. This extends into conditioning, specifically during the stage of retention where you are given either punishment or reinforcement (Comparison of Classical and Operant Conditioning, n.d.). The process of acquiring skills and knowledge in a given discipline requires an inclusion of other elements to accelerate its progress. Learning as a process has theories that view it from different perspectives. In learning, teachers use different resources, such as charts, blackboard, models, recorded or live radio and television programs, and computer programs to aid the entire learning process. This process helps learners to associate new ideas with the visible objects or models that they had seen in class.

Operant behaviour is also known as voluntary or controlled behaviour. Operant conditioning is the term for a type of learning in which your behaviour is dependent on consequences of the action and is therefore modified through reward or punishment. The behaviour modification either increases or decreases it. The term came from B. F. Skinner in 1937. Reinforcement is the consequence for the action, which causes the behaviour to occur with higher frequency, while punishment is the consequence, which causes the behaviour to occur with a lower frequency.

The Skinner box was a study conducted by Skinner 1948. A rat was placed in a chamber equipped with a lever, loudspeaker, lights, and a food tray. The rat was to respond to either an auditory or a visual stimulus and when the correct behaviour was performed, there would be a reward. Contrastingly, if the wrong action was performed or an action was missed, there would be a punishment. Skinner found that once the rat had figured out the pressing the lever would administer it food, it quickly did so every time it returned to the box. The rewarding consequence of receiving food showed the rat positive reinforcement, which ensured it repeating the action. This showed that behaviour is acquired through learned experiences.

On the other hand, classical conditioning was the term defined by Pavlov. Classical conditioning occurs when your behaviour is a consequence of a reflex due to a stimulus (Comparison of Classical and Operant Conditioning, n.d.). It entails a neutral stimulus and an unconditioned stimulus, which results in an unconditioned automatic response. Pavlov’s dogs were found to salivate at the sound of a bell ringing due to always previously having food presented at the sound of the bell. This was a-learned response from the dogs, with the taste of food being the unconditioned stimulus and salivating being the unconditioned response. It was found that after a while, the sound of the bell present alone was enough for the dogs to start salivating.

Classical conditioning focuses on the spontaneous involuntary response where the stimulus was presented before the behaviour, whereas operant conditioning focuses on increasing or decreasing a behaviour and reward or punishment was presented after the behaviour. This leads to major contrasts between the two. Classical and Operant conditioning have distinctly different roles that the learner plays. The learner is passive in classical conditioning, whereas, in Operant conditioning the learner plays an active role. This activity is best summed up by the fact that they have to do something to yield some kind of consequence. Notably, the nature of the response is where Classical and Operant conditioning differ greatly. The response of the learner in classical conditioning is purely a reflective one; the subject has zero control over it. Contrastingly, the response of the learner in operant conditioning is a voluntary one; much unlike the previous contrast the learner plays an active role and effectively controls the response (Catania & Laties, 1999).

These different types of conditioning both have their strengths and weaknesses. Classical conditioning has a limitation, which is the fact that all responses have to be a reflex, which means that what can be learnt is limited. However, classical conditioning also opens up a wide variety of opportunities to study behaviour further and explore neurological pathways linking further than reflexive behaviour, but extensive levels of cognition.

Operant conditioning can be very helpful in a classroom environment, where bad behaviour is punished by authoritarian figures and can be established as something bad to do over time. In addition, this can be seen reflected in the grading system, where poor performance is awarded a low score, which is considered a punishment, and excellent performance is rewarded an A grade (Catania & Laties, 1999).

In the aforementioned examples, the promise or possibility of rewards cause an increase in behaviour; equally, operant conditioning can cause individuals to decrease certain behaviours. Operant conditioning explains a wide range of phenomena, such as learning language and phobias. Learners are able to repeat a certain act in order to master a concept; for instance, in a mathematics class, continuous practice give the learners the ability to increase the mastery hence raise the chances of the students passing in a maths test. It has practical applications, such as training animals. It examines learning in controlled experiments in the laboratory. The findings are easily replicated. Operant conditioning enables animals to behave efficiently in their environment. For example, operant conditioning enables the best foraging strategies in birds. They learn where they are most likely to find food and return to these areas constantly to check for food (Catania & Laties, 1999). However, classical conditioning helps animal trainers such as police dogs and horses in coordinating various activities in the environment.

The biggest flaw with operant conditioning is that it is not one hundred percent successful. Operant conditioning suggests that a certain behaviour has stopped or been taken up, yet, sometimes individuals have not actually stopped the behaviours they could merely be pretending in order to receive the reward. Evidently, individuals such as these are not the rule; however, the criticism still stands. A further weakness of operant conditioning is that it does not take into account the role of inherited and cognitive factors in learning. By doing this, the theory provides us with an incomplete explanation of the learning process taken by human beings and animals. As these experiments use just a few species of animal, the findings may not generalise to other species (Cherry, n.d.). Operant conditioning does account for innate abilities that adapt a species to its environment.

The nature of Pavlov’s experiment brings to the fore possibly the biggest weakness of classical conditioning. When Ivan Pavlov started his research, he was not looking at classical conditioning. He was in fact investigating the salivary glands in dogs when he noticed that the dogs were salivating before they ate the food and when he opened the cupboard where their food was kept, he became interested in this behaviour and decided to investigate further, leading to classical conditioning. Since it was by chance that he noticed this, he could not completely explain what had happened and why it happened, this makes his research limited from the outset. On the other front, scholars also hold that classical conditioning cannot explain all learning. Classical conditioning is often seen as a long and complicated process; flexibility and speed are not strengths of the theory. Operant conditioning also falls foul of this criticism.

In conclusion, both Classical and Operant conditioning have their similarities as in strength and in weakness. Having said this, the reactions from the learners in Classical and Operant conditioning are at polar opposites. The passive nature of the learner in Classical conditioning shows the unintentional result of learning – much like the result of Pavlov’s experiment, which came about by chance – whereas, in Operant conditioning the learner is very much aware of the lesson and is active in bringing a positive conclusion (Cherry, n.d.). This issue over control and willingness ultimately divides both theories. Both Classical and Operant conditioning have played an important role in modern psychology and given major insight into the advancement of the study of behaviourism as such one cannot give one more praise or criticism than the other can; both must be taken on their equal merits. Again, both operant and classical conditioning share the same principle of acquisition, stimulus generalization, extinction, and reflexive recovery. One can use the two conditionings in order to adjust in areas where one of the conditioning is weak hence ensuring effective trainings or learning.


Catania, A., & Laties, V. (1999). Pavlov And Skinner: Two Lives In Science (An Introduction To B. F. Skinner’s “Some Responses To The Stimulus ‘Pavlov’ ”).. Journal of the Experimental Analysis of behavior, 72(3), 455- 461. Web.

Cherry, K. (n.d.). Classical vs Operant Conditioning. Psychology – Complete Guide to Psychology for Students, Educators & Enthusiasts. Web.

Comparison of Classical and Operant Conditioning. (n.d.). Exploring Psychology. Web.

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