What are the distinguishing differences between classical and operant conditioning?

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literaturenerd eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Skinner's operant conditioning was developed after Pavlov's classical conditioning. Classical conditioning, coined by Ivan Pavlov, relies on two very specific elements: the environmental stimulus and the naturally occurring reflex. With classical conditioning, an environmental stimulus is programmed to elicit (cause to occur) a naturally existing reflex. For example, when experimenting with dogs and salivation, Pavlov took the naturally existing reflex of salivating and paired it with a preceding ring of a bell, which was the environmental stimulus. Pavlov changed the behavior of a dog salivating at the sight of food to salivating at the sound of ringing of a bell: the reflex was displaced to attach to a new stimulus that came before the reflex.

In operant conditioning, a behavior is learned through punishment and reward that follows, or comes after, a given behavior. This learning is based upon cognition and not on a naturally existing reflex, which is an important point in which it differs from classical conditioning. In B.F. Skinner's experiments, rats were placed in "Skinner Boxes" and received electrical shocks when the researcher determined to deliver them. The shocks revealed the rats' comprehension of negative punishment. Therefore, in operant conditioning behavior is allowed to occur, then the positive or negative stimulus is applied or withheld.

Thus, the differences between operant and classical conditioning lies in the application of the environmental stimulus prior to a naturally existing reflex in classical or following the occurrence of a designated behavior in operant.

Yojana_Thapa | Student

Similarity and difference between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning


-          Both forms of associative learning


- Classical Conditioning forms associations between stimuli (a CS and the US it signals), two outside stimuli are associated with one another. Involves “Respondent Behavior”.

Respondent Behavior

Behavior that occurs as an automatic response to some stimulus, for Pavolv’s dog salivated in response to the meat powder and later to the tone. Meaning his salivation is biological.

It is the organism learning associations between events it does not control

- Operant conditioning- Behavior that operates on the environment, producing consequences. (your actions are associated with consequences)

Actions followed by reinforces (a stimulus that strengthens or weakens the behavior that produced it) increase; those followed by punishers decrease.

Operant Behavior

Behavior that operates in the environment, producing (rewarding or punishing stimuli) consequences; behavior that gets reinforced is more likely to repeated