Mandy Kloppers

The difference between operant and classical conditioning

Learning processes in psychology

Both operant and classical conditioning are types of learning.Classical conditioning -involves learning, or becoming aware of, an association between stimuli (for example: sexual arousal when seeing lacy underwear) whereas operant conditioning involves learning with the help of a reward system to reinforce behaviour – for example, when I compliment my partner, they treat me nicely and smile. Both processes lead to learning and changes in behaviour.

Classical conditioning involves mostly involuntary processes whereas operant conditioning is voluntary.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning was first described by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist who discovered he could modify an involuntary, automatic behavior by using a signal prior to a reflex. This was most notably demonstrated by Pavlov’s famous experiment. He noted the dogs began to salivate after hearing a bell tone when the sound had been repeatedly paired with food. Even when food was not present, the dogs would salivate. He concluded that it was a learned response. Classical conditioning takes a previously neutral stimulus, such as the bell, and pairs it with an unconditioned stimulus, such as the taste of food, and uses them to condition a desired response, such as the salivation.

The influence of classical conditioning can be seen in responses such as phobias, disgust, nausea, anger, and sexual arousal. A familiar example is conditioned nausea, in which the sight or smell of a particular food causes nausea because it caused stomach upset in the past. Similarly, when the sight of a dog has been associated with a memory of being bitten, the result may be a conditioned fear of dogs.

As an adaptive mechanism, conditioning helps shield an individual from harm or prepare them for important biological events, such as sexual activity. Thus, a stimulus that has occurred before sexual interaction comes to cause sexual arousal, which prepares the individual for sexual contact. For example, sexual arousal has been conditioned in human subjects by pairing a stimulus like a picture of a jar of pennies with views of an erotic film clip. Similar experiments involving blue gourami fish and domesticated quail have shown that such conditioning can increase the number of offspring. These results suggest that conditioning techniques might help to increase fertility rates in infertile individuals and endangered species.

Classical conditioning is used not only in therapeutic interventions, but in everyday life as well. Advertising executives, for example, are adept at applying the principles of associative learning. Think about the car commercials you have seen on television: many of them feature an attractive model. By associating the model with the car being advertised, you come to see the car as being desirable (Cialdini, 2008). You may be asking yourself, does this advertising technique actually work? According to Cialdini (2008), men who viewed a car commercial that included an attractive model later rated the car as being faster, more appealing, and better designed than did men who viewed an advertisement for the same car without the model.

Operant Conditioning

B.F. Skinner was the first psychologist to describe operant conditioning. It focuses on using either reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease a behavior. This type of conditioning allows an association to form between the behavior and the consequences for that behavior. Animal trainers often use this form of conditioning during training. When the animal completes an action successfully, the trainer offers praise. If the animal does not perform the action requested, and then the trainer withholds the praise.

Classical and operant conditioning are fundamental concepts that help us to further understand the complex mental processes that make up how we learn.

Mandy X


Source: Boundless. “Applications of Classical Conditioning to Human Behavior.” Boundless Psychology. Boundless, 26 May. 2016. Retrieved 06 Sep. 2016 from

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