Comparison Classical And Operant Conditioning


Behaviourism was invented in 1913 in a publication by John Watson dubbed “Psychology as behaviourist view it.” Watson, popularly considered the father of behaviourism made asserted as follows:

“Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take anyone at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select—doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations, and race of his ancestors”


Hence, behaviourists hold that all human behaviours emanate from their experiences (Bennett, 1990). Besides, according to Allpscych (2011), they believe that any person from any background can be trained to behave in a certain way under certain conditions. Against this backdrop, this essay seeks to compare and contrast two behaviourism views, i.e. classical v operand conditioning. But first, there will be a brief delivery of background information on behaviourism.

Behaviourism grew from the 1920s to mid-1950s to become a dominant theorization in psychology. However, Benson et al (2012) suggest that the development and popularity of behaviourism grew out of scientists’ desire to make psychology a measurable science. Therefore, it is possible to extrapolate that behaviourism emerged when scientists were trying to establish clearly describable and measurable theories that could be used to influence the human’s daily life. As a result, Watson and Skinner, the two main developers of behaviourism wanted to prove that it is possible to control or predict behaviour (Skinner, 1974). By effect, they explored the effect of environment on learning.

In an attempt to understand learning, behaviourists assume that people can learn based on reward and punishment. According to Bouton (2007), this theorization relies on the process of drill and practice as the major form of instruction. On the other hand, behaviourists also believe in the philosophy that seeks to understand measurable and understandable behaviours. It seeks to identify what people do, the actions they engage in, rather than what they feel. According to Cherry (2014a), this philosophical approach enables researchers to achieve instructional goals in specific, observable and behavioural terms – a fundamental underpinning of Applied Behavioural Analysis (ABA).

Classical Conditioning

Also termed as the respondent or Pavlovian conditioning, classical conditioning is a behaviourist view which refers to a learning process that relies on biologically potent stimulus e.g. food paired with a previously neutral stimulus e.g. a bell. According to Cherry (2014b), it is a learning process characterised by pairing illicit response through stimulus. Classical conditioning was coined by Ivan Pavlov in 1879 when he conducted several experiments with dogs. Later on in the mid-20th century, according to Field & Nightingale, classical conditioning became a fundamental part of behaviourism.

Pavlov’s Research

Pavlov’s research emerges to be among the most thoroughly done research studies on classical conditioning (Gross, 2001). While conducting the research, Pavlov made an important discovery on animal digestion and developed methods for studying animal digestion for a long period of time (Magoon & Critchfield, 2008). In doing so, the researcher redirected dog’s redirected animal’s digestive fluids outside the body for measurement. Moreover, the researcher noticed that dogs could salivate in the presence of a technician who fed them, as opposed to just salivating after seeing food. Ultimately, Pavlov concluded that in the presence of a particular stimulus when dogs are given food, dogs tend to associate that stimulus with food and therefore salivate on their own. This finding led to a conclusion that within the context of conditioning, learning occurs faster under a shorter duration between the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus (McLeod, 2014).

Operant Conditioning

Rachman (1967) defines operant conditioning as a controlled voluntary behaviour or response of any living organism. In operant conditioning, individuals respond to stimuli based on the consequences that would occur afterward. In short, as Sweeney (1999) explains, operant conditioning is a behaviourism view which holds that the likelihood of learning is influenced by manipulation of the outcome – a phenomenon that explains its use application in workforce motivation.

The theory of operant conditioning was coined by B.F Skinner, an American behaviourist, and psychologist who based his reasoning on Edward Thorndike’s “trial and error learning”. A major element of Skinner’s research is the Skinner-Box behaviour that assisted him to study animal behaviour in a controlled environment (Woollard, 2010). According to Benson et al (2012), the laboratory instrument included a key or a bar that the animal could control. In the experiment, he placed a rat in in a box and provided food as reinforcement to it as soon as he accidentally hit the bar. The animal then later began to hit the bar to receive the food, hence strengthening the voluntary behaviour with reinforcement.

Skinner then subsequently repeated the experiment but instead of reinforcing the rat’s response, he used an electric shock (punishment) to induce the voluntary response. While describing this phenomenon, Skinner developed the term operant response to demonstrate that the subject operated on its environment so as to produce a certain effect (Gross, 2001). Ultimately, Skinner used the results of his study to describe different types of punishment and reinforcement based on whether one wanted to decrease or increase certain behaviour. According to Allpscych (2011), this experiment proved that the behaviour could be positive or negative depending on whether the stimulant was withdrawn or added. For instance, positive reinforcement is achieved when one adds desirable stimuli to the environment, while negative reinforcement is achieved when one removes an undesirable stimulus (e.g. an electric shock) from the environment.

Within the context of punishment, ‘negative’ and ‘positive’ punishment works reciprocally because while positive punishment entails the addition of undesirable stimuli, negative punishment entails taking away pleasant stimuli (Woollard, 2010). According to Benson et al (2012), this process is known as ‘shaping’ and is considered one of the fundamental elements of operant conditioning because it decreases or increases the probability that one would in future repeat a previous behaviour. In short, operant conditioning can easily be defined as a type of learning where behaviour is diminished or strengthened based on pleasant or unpleasant consequences.

The differences and similarities between classical and Operant Conditioning

Bouton (2007) argues that learning is one of the greatest factors that influence human behaviour. But, according to Allpscych (2011), learning does not occur in a specific manner, rather occurs in different ways, two of the ways being operant and classical conditioning. As hinted before, classical and operant conditioning are two of the major behaviour modification techniques in behaviourism, and therefore to have a comprehensive understanding of how such techniques work, it is important to understand the differences and similarities between both each of them. Even if the two techniques are processes of learning, they operate differently in achieving their goals. Consequently, in order to understand the differences between them, researchers use the technique of asking whether the organism is able to learn the association between events under circumstances that it is not able to control, or whether the organism learning the association between the resultant events and its actions (Gross, 2001).

While classical conditioning evaluates the way an organism associates a pre-existing reflex with a particular stimulus, operant conditioning is concerned with how organisms engage in voluntary behaviour and their consequences (Woollard, 2010). Hence, according to Allpscych (2011), a learner is observed to be an active participant in their environment so as to produce either punishing or reinforcing stimuli, while in classical conditioning, the learner’s part is passive. Moreover, according to Benson et al (2012), there is a difference in the order of events between the two types of conditioning because, in classical conditioning, the response follows the stimulant while in operant conditioning, the stimulant follows the response.

Researchers have also identified another distinctive feature of the two conditioning based on the cognitive processes involved in the learner’s brain. For instance, Bouton (2007) states that in classical conditioning, the organism expects that the arrival of an unconditioned stimulus is signalled by conditioned stimulus while in operant conditioning, according to Allpscych (2011), the organisms expect their responses to be reinforced, a phenomenon that also includes a non-proximate reinforcement kind of latent learning.

The above-mentioned differences are also in addition to the fact that both classical and operant conditioning differ in terms of their terminologies especially in the definition of both i.e. classical conditioning to entail “learning through association” and operant conditioning defined as “learning through the results of behaviour” (Gross, 2001).

Skinner was keen on identifying how an organism’s surrounding affects their learning process and the repercussions of such an environment, also keen the hereditary effect too. However, according to Bouton (2007), Skinner’s ideas differ from the ideas presented by Thorndike because he added the concept of reinforcement and avoided the use of unpleasant stimulus. Benson et al (2012) explain how Skinner’s experiment used schedules to determine animal behaviour. In doing so, he talks about the fixed interval which means strengthening behaviour some duration after the last reinforcement. Besides he describes the next reaction, which generates the stimulus. According to Allpscych (2011), the commencement of the fixed ration occurs depending on the amount of reaction, while the variable ratio explains some mean of reaction needed before the reinforcement starts.

In short, there are major distinctions between the classical and operant condition that are worth mentioning. First, we identify that classical conditioning facilitates learning by allowing the organism to pair instinctual and reactions and stimulus. On the other hand, according to Cherry (2014a), operant conditioning allows the organism to learn by experiencing an intentional reaction followed by a consequent. Secondly, according to Benson et al (2012), the difference between operant and classical conditioning is that participants in classical conditioning do not have any inducements while those of operant conditioning have the luxury of inducements. Thirdly, according to Cherry (2014b), classical learners have a less active role in the acquisition process compared to their operant counterparts.

Therefore, a summary of the differences can be made in the perspectives of the type of behaviour, basis of learning, response conditioning, the source of behaviour, cognitive aspects extinction process biological predispositions. For instance, in regards to types of behaviour, Cherry (2014b), acknowledges that classical theory entails involuntary and reflexive behaviours while operant theory involves voluntary and non-reflexive behaviours. Bouton (2007) also argues that in regards to the source of behaviour, the organisms in operant conditioning emit the behaviour while organisms under classical conditioning elicit the behaviour by the stimulus.

From the comments by Benson et al (2012), it is also possible to extrapolate that the responses in classical conditioning by our emotional and physiological, while in operant conditioning, as argued by Cherry (2014a), the organisms display active behaviours as they operate within their environment. Besides, according to Allpscych (2011), the extinction process in classical conditioning entails a process where the organism’s conditioned response decreases when there is a continual presentation of a conditioned stimulus, while in operant conditioning, the organism’s ability to respond decreases when reinforcing consequences are eliminated.

From the comments by Benson et al (2012), it is also possible to extrapolate that the responses in classical conditioning by our emotional and physiological, while in operant conditioning, as argued by Cherry (2014a), the organisms display active behaviours as they operate within their environment. Besides, according to Allpscych (2011), the extinction process in classical conditioning entails a process where the organism’s conditioned response decreases when there is a continual presentation of a conditioned stimulus, while in operant conditioning, the organism’s ability to respond decreases when reinforcing consequences are eliminated.


Whereas the two types of conditioning differ in several ways, researchers have also been keen to observe the similarities that exist between them. For example, Bouton (2007) argues that both concepts are associated with learning and can be defined as the behavioural theory. But, a detailed similarity of the two concepts can easily be observed when one analyses the basic characteristics of conditioning. For instance, according to Cherry (2014a), both the classical and operant conditioning captures the phase of associating an unconditioned stimulus with a formerly neutral stimulus as well as the association of a response with its strengthening and a consequence; as a process of acquisition. Cherry (2014b) also notes that both theories have the basic phenomena of discrimination and generalization. Ideally, generalization means that a stimulus (different from a conditioned stimulus) produces the same conditioned response as a conditioned one. Nonetheless, it is important to note that a higher similarity between the stimuli increases the chances of a generalization to occur.

As opposed to generalization, discrimination entails the learned ability to differentiate between stimuli; because in classical conditioning, according to Bouton (2007), the organism is able to learn the difference between various stimuli while in operant stimuli, the organism can learn only a few responses but not all, are being punished or enforced.

Limitations of Behaviourist Views

Regardless of the similarities and differences between classical and operant conditioning, scholars have been keen to identify the various limitations and advantages of relying on them to analyse behaviour. For instance, Benson et al (2012) complains that the behaviourist views are limited by the fact that people learn differently, and that the assumptions made by the theorists might be difficult to apply on a practical environment because the process of human development is more complex that has ever been imagined. in this regard, Cherry (2014b) points out that an individual’s learning process is determined by numerous factors including life experience and genetics, and these factors influence their learning capabilities and experience. A possible implication of this insight is that whereas two people in a learning environment may make the same choice in for example mathematics test, the factors considered by the two different individuals in making such a decision may be extremely different. Hence, understanding learning based on the behaviourist views may yield accurate or inaccurate conclusions in different situations.

However, Cherry (2014a) argues that behaviourist views may help to achieve positive results in situations where there are common challenges and observable results for example math challenge in the context of school learning. However, Bouton (2007) further remarks that learners in such a scenario may encounter numerous challenges in situations where it is more difficult to measure success. However, to conclude, an attempt to change an individual’s behaviour must first consider the individual’s environment within which the undesired behaviour occurs, so that it is easier to change the undesired behaviour even by changing the environment.

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