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

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Phillip Holland eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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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.  

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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 This means that conditioned responses diminish in both when conditioning factors are withdrawn.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.

chrismick | Student

‘Operant conditioning’ and ‘Classical Conditioning’ are two of the critical concepts which are vital in the field of behavioral psychology. Operant conditioning and classical conditioning are both used for a wide range of purposes by animal trainers, psychologists, parents, teachers & so on. ‘Classical Conditioning’ is considered to be a process of learning which was originally found in the mid-1900’s by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov, the Russian physiologist. The term ‘Operant Conditioning’ had been framed in the year 1938 by B.F. Skinner. These two types of conditioning learning have both differences and similarities. The fundamental purpose remains the same for both operant conditioning and classical conditioning, which is attaining new forms of behavior. However, the procedure of how it is being obtained is quite varied.

Operant conditioning and classical conditioning share a significant number of similar fundamental processes and principles. For instance, Gregory Adams Kimble in the year 1961 had shown that the fundamental principles of stimulus generalization, spontaneous recovery, extinction, and acquisition are similar to both kinds of learning. In both classical and operant conditioning, one act or stimulus would pave way for another act or stimulus, which is negative or positive based on what the initial act or stimulus had been. Further operant conditioning and classical conditioning are considered to be similar since they involve in creating link among events and behavior in the environment of an organism and are represented by various standard laws of affiliation - for instance, it tends to be easy to link stimuli which are similar to one another and which happen under similar circumstances. Both classical and operant conditioning includes associative learning among exceptionally co-linked occasions. Both classical and operant conditioning follows fundamental laws, for example, magnitude and delay with regard to reinforcement among others in common lab focused processes. Generalization gradients are considered to be similar in classical and operant conditioning.

In spite of the similarities between operant conditioning and classical conditioning, there are various significant differences between the two such as the following: 1) Classical conditioning relates to the process of learning which enables us to attain a new type of behavior by means of the procedure which relates to the association. On the other hand, operant conditioning is a type of learning which states the relationship of behaviors on various outcomes and rewards. 2) In classical conditioning, the reaction is considered to be involuntary and reflex. In operant conditioning, on the other hand, the reaction is considered to be a behavior which is voluntary. 3) In classical conditioning, the stimulus is being viewed as new to the animal. However, in operant conditioning, the behavior is viewed as new to the animal. 4) Classical conditioning functions by pairing up the involuntary reaction with the stimulus. After that, the response which is unconditioned ends up becoming the response which is conditioned. Operant conditioning functions by using 2 noteworthy concepts such as punishments and reinforcements. Once the behavior is carried out, the behavioral rate tends to reduce or increase. 5) In classical conditioning, the stimulus is being followed by the reflex (reaction). In operant conditioning, the behavior (reaction) goes before the punishment or reward which is the stimulus. 6) In classical conditioning, association happens even if the stimulus is aversive or pleasurable. In operant conditioning, the reward which is pleasurable creates repetition, whereas extinction comes from aversion. 7) Mechanisms of the brain and internal thoughts of the mind assume a major part of classical conditioning. In operant conditioning, the theory deals only with behaviors which are expressible & not with any type of mechanisms of the brain and internal thoughts of the mind. 8) In classical conditioning, the conditioning strength is measured in terms of the level of response or speed. In operant conditioning, strength is being measured by means of the level of behavior generation. 9) The dog experiment of Pavlov is a foundation for the formation of the theory of classical conditioning and its related ideas. On the other hand, the box experiment of Skinner regarding a rat is the foundation for the theory of conditioning theory & its related ideas.

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 Pavlov'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 is 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

krishna-agrawala | Student

Both classical and operant learning are psychological processes that lead to learning. Here learning refers to the process by which changes in behavior, including actions, emotions, thoughts, and the responses of muscles and glands, results from experience or practice.

Classical learning which is also called respondent learning is based on stimulus response relationship. The learning of this type occurs when (a new stimulus begins to elicit behaviour similar to that originally produced by an old stimulus. For example if a dog a bell is sounded every time a dog is given food, the dog will begin salivating in expectation of food just at the sound of bell. Classical conditioning process is particularly important in influencing our emotional behaviour.  For example, we often learn to fear a stimulus that has been combined with some other frightening stimulus.

Operant learning, also called instrumental conditioning, takes place as a result of what happens after a response is made. For example, if a baboon is rewarded with food every time a button is pressed, it will learn to press the button for obtaining food. In one famous experiment displaying operant learning, the psychologist B.F. Skinner trained rats to press a lever to get food. In this experiment,a hungry rat placed in a box containing a lever attached to some concealed food.  At first, the rat ran around the box randomly. In this process it happened to press the lever, and the food dropped into the box.  The dropping of food reinforced the response of pressing the lever.  After repeating the process of pressing the lever followed by dropping of food many times, the rat learned to press the lever for food.