Key Difference Between Classical & Operant Conditioning

The difference between classical and operant conditioning is the way in which a new behavior is acquired. Understanding these terms can help you with some important concepts in the field of psychology and seeing some examples of both will make their differences clear.

difference classical and operant behavior dogs difference classical and operant behavior dogs

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is when a conditioned response is paired with a neutral stimulus. The most famous example of this is Pavlov’s dogs, where Ivan Pavlov trained dogs to salivate at the sound of a metronome. The metronome was a neutral stimulus, since the dogs previously had no reaction to it. Pavlov would use the metronome every time the dogs were fed, and the dogs began to associate the sound with food. Salivating was their conditioned response.

You can see real-world examples of classical conditioning in everything from your response to your cell phone to the way you react when you hear holiday music.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning involves encouraging or discouraging a specific behavior using reinforcement. While classical conditioning is training dogs to salivate to the sound of a metronome, operant conditioning is training them to sit by giving them a treat when they do.

B.F. Skinner proposed the theory of operant conditioning, and he used a simple experiment with a rat to develop the theory. In the experiment, a hungry rat is placed in a box. As the rat explores, it discovers a lever. When it pushes the lever, it gets food. Over time, the rat learns to push the lever to receive food.

Operant conditioning can involve positive reinforcement, such as giving a dog a treat or a rat getting food. It can also involve negative reinforcement, such as rewarding a dog for walking close to its owner by relaxing the unpleasant tension on the leash. Sometimes, operant conditioning involves punishment. In all examples of operant conditioning, a target behavior is reinforced using consequences.

Classical vs. Operant Conditioning: Key Differences

The main difference between classical and operant conditioning is the way the behavior is conditioned. In classical conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with a conditioned response.

In operant conditioning, a desired behavior is paired with a consequence.

Which Comes First?

In classical conditioning, a stimulus comes before the response. In operant conditioning, a behavior comes first and is then rewarded or punished.

What Is Paired?

In classical conditioning, a previously neutral stimulus is paired with an involuntary response. In operant conditioning, a behavior is paired with a consequence.

Is the Behavior Voluntary?

In classical conditioning, the response or behavior is involuntary, as in dogs salivating. In operant conditioning, the behavior is voluntary, as in dogs choosing to sit.

Quick Reference Guide to Differences Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

The following table shows some additional differences between the two types of conditioning:

Classical Conditioning

Operant Conditioning

Discovered by Pavlov

Discovered by Skinner

Connects an involuntary response to a neutral stimulus

Encourages or discourages a behavior by pairing it with a consequence 

Stimulus comes first

Behavior comes first

Behavior is involuntary

Behavior is voluntary

Both Are Part of Behaviorism

Both classical and operant conditioning are important in the field of behavioral psychology. Examples of behaviorism include both kinds of conditioning, and it’s fascinating to learn about the way these concepts are applied.

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