What are the similarities and differences between classical and operant conditioning?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Both of these terms are used in behavioral psychology. Classical conditioning involves an involuntary behavior and a response. This was made most famous in the case of Pavlov's dog who came to associate the sound of a bell with food. When he heard the bell, he salivated—thinking that food would be forthcoming. Another form of classical conditioning occurs when people associate commercial breaks with eating junk food. Commercials by themselves do not create hunger, but when people start associating commercials with a break to get food, they begin crave food every time there is a commercial break.  

Operant conditioning involves tying a reward or consequence to a behavior. For example, if a child talks during class, he/she misses recess time. Ideally, if a student misses enough recess, he/she will associate having to miss recess with talking in class, and he/she will disrupt class less. Also, a teacher could tie good behaviors to treats. If a student does well, he/she will receive a treat. The student comes to associate good behavior with treats and he/she will act better.  

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To explain further, conditioning is achieved through making connections between a stimulus and a particular behavior or between different stimuli.

In both classical conditioning and operant conditioning, extinction may occur in the behaviors. This means that conditioned responses diminish in both when conditioning factors are withdrawn. Additionally, the same behaviors will also recover spontaneously when conditioning is reapplied.

Stimulus generalization occurs in both classical and operant conditioning. Stimulus generalization is the reaction of the subject to other stimuli similar to the conditioned stimulus, for instance, developing a fear of all cats after being scratched by one.

In classical conditioning learning is passive, or the learner is the object, while in operant conditioning the learning is active or the learner is subjected to the consequence.

In addition, classical conditioning associates two stimuli while operant conditioning associates an action with a consequence.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial