The Differences Between Classical & Operant Conditioning

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In the study of psychology there are two types of conditioning that guide the decisions and behaviors of humans and animals. Classical conditioning, discovered by Ivan Pavlov, and operant conditioning, discovered by B. F. Skinner, modify and shape our behaviors. Stimuli, rewards and consequences are the varying factors that guide responses in various situations. While closely related, it is important to distinguish the differences between classical and operant conditioning.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning involves behaviors that are shaped by the pairing of stimuli. It is sometimes referred to as Pavlovian conditioning, after its founder. Classical conditioning describes an automatic or involuntary response when a specific stimulus is presented. For example, you are driving down the road and you hear a song that is strongly connected to a specific emotional event in your life. You begin to feel strong emotions associated with the song because the song is tied to an emotional event. This reaction is involuntary. Classical conditioning can also be predictable, as humans or animals respond to one event in anticipation of the next. Most importantly, classical conditioning marks an existing behavior that is shaped by an associated stimulus.


Dr. Ivan Pavlov is the father of classical conditioning. He made his discovery while studying the digestive patterns of dogs. Pavlov rang a bell before presenting the dogs with food and measured their salivary response. It wasn’t long before Pavlov noticed that the dogs would begin to salivate at the sound of the bell, even when food was not presented. The bell was the anticipatory event that led to food. Pavlov’s dogs had been classically conditioned to associate the ringing of a bell with the presentation of food.

Operant Conditioning

Although similar to classical conditioning, operant conditioning differs in that it is the process of reaching a desired behavior or response through the use of consequences and rewards. The term "operant" refers to how a human or animal will operate to the stimuli within his environment. For example, an employee will work hard at his job knowing that termination is a possible consequence of laziness. If you’ve experienced trauma as the result of an action, you are likely to never repeat that action again due to operant conditioning. Learning is based on the rewards or consequences that come as a result of an action. It has the ability to increase or decrease behaviors depending on the consequences present.


Using the influence of Pavlov and John Watson, the father of behaviorism, B. F. Skinner pioneered the idea of operant conditioning. Skinner did not believe that humans possess free-will or an inner-self. Instead, he believed that all human behavior and personality is based on the external circumstances and consequences. To test his theory, Skinner invented a box, in which he placed a hungry rat. Inside the box, the rat was presented with levers and lights. The rat soon learned that pressing one of the levers would deliver a piece of food. The rat also learned to discriminate between light and dark, learning that food would not be delivered when the light was off. Skinner’s box demonstrated the shaping of behaviors through operant conditioning.