Classical vs. Operant Conditioning

Updated: Jun 18, 2021

Author: Belinda Lin

Editors: Lydia Ren

Artists: Denise Suarez

Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning are two processes that encourage learning. However, they are approached in different ways. Classical conditioning is the process of learning through associating different stimuli. Operant conditioning is learning to associate a behavior through consequences.

Now that you know a little bit about that, we can get into more specific details. There are several different stimuli that go into creating a situation for learning to occur. There is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), which is a stimulus that naturally triggers a reaction. For example, food is a UCS because people or animals naturally salivate to it. In this case, the salivation is the unconditioned response (UCR), which is a natural reaction to the UCS. Then there is a neutral stimulus. In this case of the food and the animal, the neutral stimulus (NS) is ringing a bell. The conditioned stimulus (CS) is always the same as the NS because you are always testing the same stimulus in one situation. A conditioned response (CR) is the learned stimulus to the previous conditioned response. For this to work the UCS has to be presented, Ivan Pavlov, said that the NS has to be presented immediately before the UCS. But what if it doesn’t?

If a stimulus is not brought up the correct way, then there will be extinction or spontaneous recovery to the wanted behavior. For instance, if you give a dog a treat each time that they sit down, and then suddenly you stop, the dog will stop sitting down on command. Spontaneous recovery is the act of, in this case, not giving food to a dog after sitting, so the dog stops sitting on command, but after a while, they suddenly start sitting on command again. Isn’t that interesting?

Operant conditioning is a process using consequences. These consequences are referred to as reinforcers and punishments. A reinforcer is to encourage wanted behavior, while a punishment is to discourage a behavior. There are two types of reinforcers: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement. And no, positive does not mean doing something positive, and negative does not mean doing something negative. A positive reinforcement is to give into an increased likelihood of a behavior through administering a desirable stimulus. This could be seen through giving someone a compliment whenever a student participates, so the likelihood of the student participating again will increase. A negative punishment is the act of removing an aversive stimulus to increase behavior. An example of this could be getting a headache, so you take aspirin, and the headache disappears; this will increase the likelihood of you taking aspirin to get rid of headaches in the future.

Now let’s talk about the punishments. A positive punishment is the act of administering an aversive stimulus to decrease the likelihood of a behavior. For instance, if a child is misbehaving, a parent will spank the child to hopefully prevent bad behavior from happening again. A negative punishment is the act of withdrawing a desirable stimulus. For instance, if there is bad behavior, you could take their phone time away to teach them that bad behavior is not accepted.

So which method would you choose to train your pet or child?



Cherry, Kendra. “The Difference Between the Classical and Operant Conditioning.” Verywell


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