Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning: A Study Guide

Training with classical vs operant conditioning
(Last Updated On: May 15, 2018)

Classical conditioning vs operant conditioning? What exactly are the differences between these two types of learning. Both classical conditioning and operantĀ are central to behaviorism, but students often get confused about the differences between the two.

Use this study guide to familiarize yourself with some of the major topics related to classical and operant conditioning including key terminology and important thinkers.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a learning process in which an association is formed between a naturally existing stimulus and a neutral stimulus. Once an association has been formed, the neutral stimulus will come to evoke the same response as the naturally occurring stimulus.

Sounds confusing, but let’s break it down:

A dog will salivate when it sees food. The food is a naturally occurring stimulus that automatically triggers a response.

Now imagine that you begin to wear a white coat every time you present the food to the dog. Eventually, the animal forms an association between the natural stimulus (the food) and the previously neutral stimulus (the white coat). Once this association has been established, the dog will begin to salivate when it sees the white coat, even in the absence of the food.

This process was discovered by a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov and has become a vital concept within the field of behavioral psychology. The classical conditioning process often occurs in the real world, and can also be used to purposefully alter behaviors and teach new behaviors.

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The behaviorist John B. Watson also utilized this process in his famous Little Albert experiment. By associating the sight of a white rat with a loud, clanging sound, Watson was able to classically condition a young boy to fear the white rat.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning utilizes reinforcement and punishment to create associations between behaviors and the consequences for those behaviors. For example, imagine that a parent punishes a child for throwing a toy. Because of this punishment, the child forms an association between the action (throwing) and a result (getting punished). As a result of this consequence, the child becomes less likely to throw the toy again in the future. Once this association is learned, the problematic behavior decreases.

There are a few different factors that can influence how quickly and how strongly a response is learned. The salience of the consequence can play a role, as well as the timing and frequency of the consequence. The timing and frequency of consequences in operant conditioning are known as schedules of reinforcement.

Classical vs Operant Conditioning: Understanding the Differences

For many students, remembering what makes classical conditioning and operant conditioning different can be a real challenge. I once heard a college professor tell a class full of undergraduates that she had not truly understood the difference between the two until her second year of graduate school.

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Fortunately, there are some handy tricks for remembering and identifying each type of conditioning process.

Classical conditioning:

  • Involves involuntary behaviors that occur automatically
  • Involves a neutral stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response
  • Involves placing a previously neutral stimulus before a naturally occurring reflex

Operant conditioning:

  • Involves voluntary behaviors
  • Requires the use of reinforcement or punishment
  • Involves placing a consequence after a behavior

Key Terms and Definitions

The following are a few of the key terms that you should know and understand related to classical conditioning and operant conditioning:

  • Conditioned Response
  • Conditioned Stimulus
  • Discrimination
  • Extinction
  • Fixed-Interval Schedule
  • Fixed Ratio Schedule
  • Habituation
  • Negative Punishment
  • Negative Reinforcement
  • Positive Punishment
  • Positive Reinforcement
  • Stimulus Generalization
  • Unconditioned Response
  • Unconditioned Stimulus
  • Variable-Interval Schedule
  • Variable-Ratio Schedule
  • Shaping

Classical vs. Operant Conditioning: Study Questions

As you study classical conditioning and operant conditioning, be sure that you are able to answer the following questions.

  1. What effect do schedules of reinforcement have on acquiring a new behavior?
  2. What are reinforcement and punishment? How do they differ?
  3. What are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement?
  4. What are positive punishment and negative punishment?
  5. People often confuse punishment with negative reinforcement. How are they different?
  6. What are the differences between classical and operant conditioning?