Operant Conditioning Is Different From Classical Conditioning Because

For many, the concept of conditioning brings to mind the famous experiments conducted by Ivan Pavlov, wherein dogs were conditioned to salivate at the sound of a bell. This process, known as classical conditioning, is just one of the many types of conditioning that exist in the world of psychology. Another popular form of conditioning is operant conditioning, which differs significantly from classical conditioning. In this article, we will explore the key differences between operant conditioning and classical conditioning, and how they each play a unique role in shaping behavior.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a type of learning in which an individual learns to associate a neutral stimulus with a meaningful stimulus. The most famous example of classical conditioning is Pavlov’s experiment with dogs. In this experiment, Pavlov rang a bell (neutral stimulus) every time he fed the dogs, which caused the dogs to salivate (meaningful stimulus). Over time, the dogs began to salivate at the sound of the bell alone, even when no food was presented.

The key components of classical conditioning include the unconditioned stimulus (UCS), which naturally elicits a response, and the conditioned stimulus (CS), which initially does not elicit the response, but through association with the UCS, eventually comes to do so. Additionally, there is the unconditioned response (UCR), which is the natural response to the UCS, and the conditioned response (CR), which is the learned response to the CS.

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning, on the other hand, is a type of learning in which behavior is strengthened or weakened by the consequences that follow it. This form of conditioning was developed by B.F. Skinner, who used a device called a Skinner box to study the behavior of animals. In this type of conditioning, behaviors are shaped through reinforcement and punishment.

In operant conditioning, there are two types of reinforcement: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. Positive reinforcement involves the addition of a favorable stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again, while negative reinforcement involves the removal of an unfavorable stimulus to increase the likelihood of a behavior occurring again. Punishment, on the other hand, involves the addition of an unfavorable stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavior occurring again.

Key Differences Between Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning

Voluntary vs. Involuntary Responses: One of the key differences between operant and classical conditioning lies in the nature of the responses. In classical conditioning, the responses are involuntary, meaning they occur reflexively without conscious control. For example, in Pavlov’s experiment, the dogs salivated in response to the bell without any conscious effort. In operant conditioning, however, the responses are voluntary and under the control of the individual. This means that the individual’s behavior is instrumental in producing the consequences that follow.

Association vs. Consequence: Another important distinction is the mechanism through which learning occurs. In classical conditioning, learning takes place through the association of stimuli. The neutral stimulus becomes associated with the meaningful stimulus, leading to a conditioned response. In operant conditioning, learning takes place through the consequences that follow a behavior. Behaviors that are reinforced or rewarded are more likely to be repeated, while behaviors that are punished or unrewarded are less likely to be repeated.

Passive vs. Active Roles: In classical conditioning, the individual plays a passive role in the learning process. The association between stimuli occurs without any deliberate effort on the part of the individual. In operant conditioning, however, the individual plays an active role in shaping their behavior. They are actively involved in selecting behaviors that lead to desirable outcomes and avoiding behaviors that lead to undesirable outcomes.

Inherent vs. Learned Responses: Classical conditioning involves triggering an existing reflex or unconditioned response through the association of stimuli. The individual’s response is innate and not learned through experience. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, involves the shaping of new behaviors through the consequences that follow them. The individual’s responses are learned through the reinforcement or punishment of their behaviors.

Applications of Operant and Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning: Classical conditioning has been widely used in various therapeutic and clinical settings. One notable example is the use of classical conditioning in exposure therapy for individuals with phobias or anxiety disorders. By pairing a feared stimulus with a relaxed and non-threatening state, individuals can learn to overcome their fear response over time.

Operant Conditioning: Operant conditioning has been applied in a wide range of settings, including education, parenting, and the workplace. In education, teachers often use reinforcement and punishment to shape student behavior. In parenting, parents use similar techniques to encourage desirable behaviors in their children. In the workplace, operant conditioning is used in the form of performance-based incentives and disciplinary actions to shape employee behavior.


In conclusion, operant conditioning and classical conditioning are two distinct forms of learning that play a significant role in shaping behavior. While classical conditioning focuses on the association between stimuli and reflexive responses, operant conditioning emphasizes the consequences that follow behaviors and the voluntary nature of those responses. Understanding the differences between the two forms of conditioning is essential for individuals studying psychology, education, and behavior modification. Both types of conditioning have their unique applications and can be effectively used to manipulate and modify behavior. By recognizing the distinctions between these two forms of conditioning, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of the complexities of human and animal behavior.

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