Difference Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning (With Table)

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Anyone who is studying behavioral psychology should know the terms classical and operant conditioning. Most of the people think of both of these processes to be the same, whereas they aren’t.

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

The difference between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning is that classical conditioning is concerned with the involuntary behaviors of an individual. However, operant conditioning is responsible for making voluntary action weak or strong.

Classical conditioning is known to link a response that is involuntary in nature with a stimulus. On the other hand, operant conditioning connects a voluntary action with a consequence. No individual can choose to be or not be a part of new behavior, in the case of classical conditioning.

However, in operant conditioning, it is the individual who decides to receive a punishment or reinforcement by choosing to be or not to be a part of it. Parents and teachers mostly use operant conditioning to teach kids about certain behavioral aspects.


Comparison Table Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning (in Tabular Form)

Parameter of ComparisonClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
MeaningIn classical conditioning, an involuntary response is linked with a stimulus.In operant conditioning, the link is made between a voluntary response and the result of it.
ModificationIn the case of classical conditioning, the change gets occurred in an involuntary behavior.Here, the change occurs in voluntary behavior.
Type of learningClassical conditioning is a passive learning process.Operant conditioning is an active learning process.
WorkingHere, the stimulus which is neutral in nature is turned into a conditioned stimulus to extract a behavior.The punishment or reinforcement is imposed in order to make a behavior strong or weak.
ChoiceOne can’t choose to be a part of new behavior here.An individual can choose whether to be a part of it or not.


What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is first introduced by a Russian physiologist, named Ivan Pavlov. This had a significant impact on the behaviorism branch of psychology entirely.

Pavlov noticed that his dogs start to salivate as he serves food to them. He paired the serving of the food with a tone, and in response to that tone, the dogs started to salivate after a while. This made him experiment further with the process of conditioning.

In the process of classical conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus, which was naturally there is linked with a stimulus that was neutral before. In this case, the taste of the food is the unconditioned stimulus, whereas the tone or sound of the bell is a neutral stimulus.

An unconditioned response that is salivating, in this case, gets triggered by the unconditioned stimulus. After both, the unconditioned stimulus and neutral stimulus is linked successfully. Only the tone will be ample to make the dogs salivate.

Now, the tone will be known as the conditioned stimulus, and the response to it will be called a conditioned response.

Observing the process of classical conditioning will also help you to know how most of the bad habits are formed.


What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning promotes the increment or decrement in a particular behavior by the use of reinforcement and punishment. Operant conditioning is also known as instrumental conditioning.

In order to understand this better, let’s take this example. In order to teach a dog to fetch a ball, the trainer rewards him with a treat every time he performs well. But when the dog fails to fetch the ball, the trainer holds the reward.

This forms a link between the behavior of the dog fetching the ball and the reward received. Various factors are responsible here for how fast a behavior can be learned.

To make a behavior learned fast, you need to reinforce the response quite often. This is majorly used by parents and teachers, all the time, in order to teach kids. People also use operant conditioning to get rid of their bad habits.

Reinforcements are of two kinds: positive and negative. People often confuse negative reinforcement with punishment. However, both of them are different. In negative reinforcement, the negative outcome is to be removed.

Main Differences Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

  1. Classical conditioning is responsible for linking an involuntary response with a previously neutral stimulus. However, operant conditioning establishes the link between voluntary response and its consequence.
  2. In classical conditioning, the change happens in involuntary behavior, whereas the change in operant conditioning occurs in voluntary behavior.
  3. Classical conditioning is a passive process meaning an individual can’t choose to be part of new behavior.
    On the other hand, operant conditioning is an active process in which one can choose whether one is willing to be a part of it or not.
  4. In classical conditioning, the neutral stimulus gets turned into a conditional stimulus that extracts a conditioned response.
    On the other hand, in operant conditioning, a behavior gets weak or strong by the use of either a punishment or reinforcement.
  5. Classical conditioning is also known as respondent conditioning. The other name of operant conditioning is instrumental conditioning.



In classical conditioning, two stimuli are combined in order to form a behavior. Here a link gets created between the unconditioned stimulus and neutral stimulus.

In operant conditioning, a behavior becomes weak or strong by the use of either reinforcement or punishment. Classical conditioning brings a change in involuntary behavior.

However, operant conditioning is responsible for the change in voluntary behavior. It is an active process, meaning one can choose whether to be a part of it or not.

On the other hand, classical conditioning is a passive process. You cannot control if you want to be a part of a new behavior or not. Here, a previously neutral stimulus gets turned into a conditioned stimulus.

This conditioned stimulus results in causing a conditioned response. The respondent conditioning is another name for the classical conditioning, whereas operant conditioning is also known as instrumental conditioning.

Both these terms play a significant role in the world of psychology, and it is quite essential to study them in order to understand behavioral psychology.



  1. https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e589/7e476378b4cf52867242e0f9b09bdcac462f.pdf
  2. https://www.nature.com/articles/nn1593
  3. https://epub.uni-regensburg.de/28570/1/brembs.pdf
  4. https://jeb.biologists.org/content/199/3/683.short