What are the similarities and differences between Pavlov and Skinner?

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Pavlov and Skinner were two psychologists who pioneered the ideas of conditioning, contributing greatly to behavior theory and helping to develop new ideas and techniques for training and changing behavior. Both of them were deeply involved with the idea that behaviors were conditioned and therefore learned—and thus could be changed.

Pavlov, famous for his experiment with feeding dogs while ringing a bell to train them to salivate at the sound of said bell, believed in what he called "classical conditioning." He trained behaviors based on external events. He placed an instigation signal and stimulus to train unconscious behaviors in the dogs. He believed that a stimulus would create a reflexive response, and that response could be adapted.

Skinner, on the other hand, dealt with conscious behaviors and decisive actions of individuals. Experimenting primarily with rats, he rewarded and punished certain behaviors, training them to do specific things such as pulling levers. His belief was contradictory to Pavlov's, thinking that an action would produce a stimulus and therefore impact the individual's response to and acceptance of said action.

In reality, both of their ideas are true and fundamental to an understanding of psychology, because there are both conscious and unconscious actions that take place in our daily lives.

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Both Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner are considered behaviorists. This means that they focused on measurable, observable, and specific behaviors and how these behaviors can be manipulated and changed. Unlike many psychological theorists of their time, who focused primarily on thoughts and emotions, behaviorists sought to deal with more concrete actions.

Pavlov was the first to demonstrate conditioning, where behaviors can be created and reinforced through a system of pairing behaviors with stimuli. On the other hand, Skinner denied the importance of what comes before a behavior. Instead, he believed that it is what comes after the behavior that is most important. Following behaviors with rewards or punishment determines whether these behaviors will be repeated.

There are other noteworthy behaviorists that have been influenced by Pavlov and Skinner, including John Watson and Edward Thorndike. Watson is the founder of the behaviorist theory. He viewed the Freudian ideas of his time as too theoretical and placing too much emphasis on heredity. He believed behavior originated from previous experiences. He was largely influenced by Pavlov's ideas about conditioning. In his famous experiment, he conditioned a young boy named Albert to fear white rats by repeatedly accompanying the sight of the rat with a loud clanging noise. The boy who previously liked rats and attempted to pet them now shuddered in fear not only to the rat but to other items resembling the rat, such as Santa Claus beards.

Similar to Pavlov, Thorndike also used animal experiments. He developed his ideas on "instrumental conditioning," which is made up of two laws: the law of exercise and the law of effect. For example, he placed a cat in what Skinner called a "puzzle box" and waited to see how long it would take for the cat to escape and find food. The cat struggled at first, but eventually found its way out. After that, every time the cat was placed in the box, it escaped more quickly than before, proving the law of exercise that the repetition of a response strengthens it. The law of effect is that the strength of the learned response is determined by whether or not the behavior is rewarded or punished.

It is easy to see how these behaviorist theorists were influenced by each other. They all agreed that it is more worthwhile to focus on the observable rather than just theory. They also agreed that behavior is shaped by experiences surrounding the behavior; however, when these experiences occur appears to be up for debate.

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  • Both psychologists focused on conditioning/modifying behavior
  • Both forms of conditioning are forms of associative learning 


  • Classical (respondent) conditioning 
  • Focused on involuntary behaviors
  • Placed signals before the reflex took place
  • Animal learns association between uncontrollable events


  • Operant (instrumental) conditioning
  • Focused on voluntary behaviors
  • Aimed to reinforce or punish behaviors after they occurred 
  • Animal learns the consequence to a certain behavior 

A Bit More In-Depth: 
The difference between the way classical conditioning and operant conditioning works is pretty simple once you understand the concepts behind each. 


As mentioned above, classical conditioning focuses on involuntary behaviors.

For example, Pavlov's most notable experiment involving classical conditioning called for ringing a bell in order to cause dogs to salivate.
Prior to his experiment, Pavlov noticed that dogs salivated whenever they saw food which is an involuntary response on their part. To see if he could associate that involuntary response with a certain prompt, he added a bell as a neutral stimulus. 
For a period of time, he rang a bell whenever he fed the dogs and, eventually, they would salivate whenever they heard the bell, even if no food was present. 
Therefore, Pavlov was able to prove that an involuntary behavior could be associated with a certain stimulus.
Because operant conditioning focuses on voluntary behavior, Skinner's experiment was much different than Pavlov's. 
Skinner placed a rat in a box that contained a lever that would produce a food pellet when pushed. As the rat ran about the box, it accidentally bumped into the lever and it was provided with a pellet of food. The rat soon associated pushing the lever with receiving food (positive reinforcement) which increased the odds of it pushing the lever again. 
Skinner also noted that punishment could also modify the animal's behavior.

For example, if he were to take the food pellets out of his experiment, the rat would eventually stop pressing the lever after realizing it was no longer going to receive a reward for doing so. This is an example of negative punishment or "punishment by removal."
Unlike Pavlov's experiment with dogs, the behavior of the rats was completely voluntary and, due to instances of both positive and negative reinforcement, Skinner proved that they could learn to associate certain behaviors with certain consequences. 




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