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Classical and Operant Conditioning

Classical and Operant Conditioning

Operant and classical conditioning are essential concepts in behavioural psychology. The two concepts are involved in learning, but they are different.  In understating of these concepts and how they influence modification of behaviour, it’s necessary to understand how operant and classical conditioning differ from each other. Classical conditioning was first described by Pavlov Ivan, a Russian psychologist who further described the conditioning as a process of replacing neural signals before the occurrence of a reflex (Skinner, 1963). The conditioning is based on involuntary, automatic behaviours among people.

On the other hand, Skinner, a psychologist from America, described operant conditioning. According to Skinner (1963), he argues that the operant conditioning involves the application of reinforcement after a certain behaviour. The operant conditioning is based on strengthening of weakness through voluntary behaviours.

In explaining the working of classical conditioning, Ivan used an experiment of a dog, and he noticed that the dog salivates as a form of response to a certain tone after a sound h the classical has been repeatedly paired through the presentation of food. This made Ivan conclude that classical conditioning is a learned response quickly.  Therefore, classical conditioning refers to a process which involves the creation of an association between a neutral and an existing natural stimulus. The classical conditioning depends on a process of impairing neutral stimulus in an unconditioned stimulus which includes food taste (Skinner, 1963).   On the other hand, the unconditioned stimulus includes automatically and naturally stimulus that triggers salivating as a form of response to food. The association of neutral and unconditioned stimulus can thus cause evoking of a certain response.  In further explanation of classical conditioning, Ivan demonstrates how a dog associated the bell sound to food which causes an unconditioned response that is salivating.  The sound of the bell can be perceived as a conditioned stimulus while the salivating response is conditioned response. Classical conditioning can be regarded as a far much better term for describing learning methods and can also be used in an explanation of how various behaviours can have an impact on the health of an individual. 

The operant conditioning as suggested by Skinner is based on the concept of instrumental conditioning (Skinner, 1963). The operant conditioning involves a learning process which causes a change in behaviour due to experiences which occur after a certain response.  The concept of operant conditioning usually involves voluntary behavioural changes which are followed by punishment or reinforcement. The reinforcement triggers behaviour that causes an increase in response, however, when behaviour is preceded by punishment the act would tend to decline.  In illustrating the operant conditioning, kissing where putting arms around a person and kissing back enthusiastically reflects a form of reinforcement that would lead to an increase in the probability of seeking another kiss. The reinforcement in operant conditioning is usually of two types. The positive reinforcement which regards to the addition of a positive thing and negative reinforcement that would occur if the undesirable thing is removed thus causing displaying of a behaviour.  For example, negative reinforcement can be described by the action of washing dishes to prevent a fight with a colleague.  The positive punishment can be described when there is unfavourable outcomes or events that are in certain order and cause weakening of the responses. On the other hand, negative punishment can be characterized by a favourable outcome or event which can be removed from the undesired occurrence of behaviours. 

Operant and classical conditioning are two important facets of thought that are used to reflect on facets of human and non- behaviour. The two theories help to explain why human a non-human behaviours are the way they are in the environment occupied by human beings (Skinner, 1963). Classical conditioning explains things that happen around human beings while the operant conditioning explains things revolving the consequences of human actions.

Operant conditioning is a form of learning that is based on consequences. An action that is rewarded is more likely to be repeated while an action that is punished is less likely to be repeated. Operant conditioning is important in explaining human behaviours. For instance, operant conditioning is critical in shaping behaviour in young children whereby, desirable behaviours that are rewarded and positively reinforced is more likely to occur and repeat. When a child behaves in an undesirable way, they may be getting punished for instance, by taking a toy away will negatively reinforce the behaviour and the behaviour is less likely to occur.

Operant conditioning is important in imposing behavioural interventions in human behaviours. Operant conditioning plays a critical role in intervening undesirable behaviours such as quitting smoking, overcoming alcohol addiction, dieting and promoting more exercises. Through the three types of responses namely neutral operant, reinforces and punishers it is possible for human beings to understand the motivators and feedback that is needed to promote positive behavior change. When human beings are presented with motivating factors and immediate feedback they can be able quit behaviors such as smoking and heavy drinking. For instance, when students receive motivation and feedback they are more able to retain information due to affect in their stimuli.  The behavior of people exhibiting negative behaviors is dominated by aversion (escape) stimulation.

Therefore, operant conditioning helps humans to understand the types of positive contingencies that can be used to promote positive outcomes. The operant conditioning is also critical in promoting teaching and learning in students. Operant conditioning can be used to condition positive study behaviors, condition classroom behavior and deal with anxieties in classroom. Through the operant conditioning, parents have become increasingly aware of parenting techniques that best fit their children.

Significant number of behaviors that people experience in their every-day life is affected by the reinforcement people get in a particular manner. Operant conditioning has significant impact practical life situations. People work regularly due to the reinforcement that is provided in form of salary, promotion and other material benefits. Understanding how things such as job-satisfaction and job opportunities, material and non-material benefits work in influencing employee motivation. Operant conditioning plays a vital role in shaping appropriate behaviors as desired. Most of the human beings are shaped by attitudes, beliefs, customs and values. The shaping of behaviors is mainly informed by the knowledge that it is unlikely for an organism to display anything but simplest of behaviors spontaneously. Through operant conditioning behavior shaping, behaviors are broken down into small and achievable steps.

On the other hand, classical conditioning emphasis on learning from the environment. Unconditioned stimulus produces an unconditioned responses in an organism. During conditioning stimulus which do not produce response are called neutral stimulus. For classical conditioning to be effective, conditioned stimulus should occur before the unconditioned stimulus rather than after the condition. The classical conditioning theory is scientific since it is based on scientific evidence. It is also reductionist in nature since complex behavior is broken down into smaller stimulus-response units. Breaking down behaviors into small stimulus-responses makes it possible to be scientifically tested. The conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. The unconditioned stimulus is usually a biologically significant stimulus such as food or pain that elicits an unconditioned response (UR) from the start. The conditioned stimulus is usually neutral and produces no particular response at first, but after conditioning it elicits the conditioned response. As an adaptive mechanism, conditioning helps shield an individual from harm or prepare them for important biological events, such as sexual activity. Classical conditioning is effective in a number of therapeutic treatments in humans, such as aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, and flooding. Classical conditioning is used not only in therapeutic interventions, but in everyday life as well, such as by advertising agencies.

Application of operant conditioning involves using rewards in school for best performing student. This behaviour is meant to encourage students to perform better in their studies to get rewards. Moreover, schoolteacher uses operant conditioning to reinform the conduct of pupils and student. For instance, schools offer rewards for well-behaved and for neat individuals. All this is meant to encourage positive attributes among the students.

Operant conditioning is synonymous with animal husbandry. The science of animal domestication is based on the theory of operant conditioning. For instance, in India elephant are used by the residents to provide transport for luggage. This sound weird but the animals are taught to stay within homestead where they are provided with food and other amenities. Also, as Pavlov experiment on dogs shows animal respond best to conditioning which leads to their easy domestication.

Classical conditioning is also used in the medical sphere. Giang et al. (1996) say that classical conditioning has improved the field of medicine. The authors say that the principal of the condition has been applied to influence the immune system to be able to fight infections. For instance, Giang et al. (1996), says the development of lupus has enabled the doctor to overcome the severity of the disease. Therefore, a scientist has made progress by influencing human body activities as well as behaviours for people suffering from body injuries and brain damage. Classical conditioning help people learn the language, walk again and recover from post-traumatic disorder.

Classical conditioning theory is an important subject in today’s prison. The work of rehabilitation of deviant individual has been made successful by application of this theory. According to Burdon et al. (2011), punishment is a tool used to discourage people from breaking the law. The essence of criminal justice to incarcerate the accused is based on conditioning people from committing a similar crime in the future. Moreover, the theory also subjects other people from going against the law for fear of incarceration. Burdon et al. (2011) also suggest that positive classical conditioning help inmates in appealing to pro-social behaviours. For example, inmates are taught to respect their authority as well as engaging in behavioural programs. Successful candidates are promoted to lighter duties or have their sentence reduced.

The US military training uses the theory of operant and classical conditioning to prepare the troop to the real-life battlefield. Soldiers are taken through extraneous exercises that push their mind and body to their extreme. Through this training, soldiers are conditioned to respond swiftly to threat with ease. The prior learning and exercise helps the soldier and minimize casualties while in combat. Similarly, the effect of war affects militant psychology. Through the principle of conditioning, health practitioners help the affected officer to forget their traumatic past by passively engaging their brain to a new way of life.

Use of operant conditioning in the workplace has helped motivate workers and increase productivity. The simple use of motivation technique has helped employee work harder due to expected favor. The modern workplace has conditioned staff to extra remuneration when certain target are met. This has changes the organization rules to include operant conditions to institutional rules and guidelines. For instance, in sports footballer are rewarded when they score goals against their opponent. Through this the athlete play so hard to achieve this and deliver victory to their team. This is a good example of operant conditioning which defines national and schools sporting.

Classical and operant conditioning has contributed positively to influence behaviours in families, school, and workplaces as well in rehabilitation centres. School students are taught to be excel in academic and be well-mannered. In the families, children are brought up to respect the elderly as well as to engage in families shores after school. In prison, inmates are helped to remould their behaviours and become good citizens. Operant conditioning also helps doctors to shape the behaviour of their patient and recover from post-traumatic disorder, limb injuries as well as recovering from communication problems.


Burdon, W. M. et al. (2011). Developing and implementing a positive behavioural reinforcement intervention in prison-based drug treatment: Project BRITE. J Psychoactive Drugs, 7, 40-50.

Giang DW, Goodman AD, Schiffer RB, Mattson DH, Petrie M, Cohen N, Ader R. J (1996).  Conditioning of cyclophosphamide-induced leukopenia in humans. Neuropsychiatry Clin Neurosci. Spring; 8(2):194-201.

Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behaviour. American Psychologist, 18(8), 503-515.

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