Difference Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

Anyone studying behavioural psychology should know the terms classical and operant conditioning. Most people think these processes are the same, but they aren’t.


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Key Takeaways

  1. Classical conditioning is a learning process in which a previously neutral stimulus triggers an innate response.
  2. Operant conditioning is a learning process in which behavior is modified through consequences such as reinforcement or punishment.
  3. Classical conditioning involves the automatic response of an organism, while operant conditioning involves the deliberate actions of an organism.

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning, discovered by Ivan Pavlov, is a type of learning in which an organism learns to associate two previously unrelated stimuli and is concerned with the involuntary behaviours of an individual. Operant conditioning, discovered by B.F. Skinner is a type of learning in which an organism learns to associate a behaviour with a consequence and is responsible for making voluntary action weak or strong.

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

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Classical conditioning is known to link a response that is involuntary 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 behaviour, in the case of classical conditioning.

However, in operant conditioning, the individual 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 behavioural aspects.


Comparison Table

Parameter of ComparisonClassical ConditioningOperant Conditioning
MeaningIn classical conditioning, an involuntary response is linked to 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 behaviour.Here, the change occurs in voluntary behaviour.
Type of learningClassical conditioning is a passive learning process.Operant conditioning is an active learning process.
WorkingHere, the stimulus, which is neutral, is turned into a conditioned stimulus to extract a behaviour.Punishment or reinforcement is imposed to make a behaviour solid or weak.
ChoiceOne can’t choose to be a part of new behaviour here.An individual can choose whether to be a part of it or not.


What is Classical Conditioning?

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

Pavlov noticed that his dogs started to drool as he served 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.

In this case, an unconditioned response that is drooling 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.

The tone will be known as the conditioned stimulus, and its response will be called a conditioned response.

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

classical conditioning

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning promotes the increment or decrement in a particular behaviour through reinforcement and punishment. Operant conditioning is also known as instrumental conditioning.

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

This links the dog’s behaviour fetching the ball and the reward received. Various factors are responsible here for how fast a behaviour can be learned.

To make a behaviour learned fast, you must often reinforce the response. This is used by parents and teachers all the time 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.

operant conditioning

Main Differences Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

  1. Classical conditioning links 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 behaviour, whereas the change in operant conditioning occurs in voluntary behaviour.
  3. Classical conditioning is a passive process that means an individual can’t be part of new behaviour.
    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 becomes a conditional stimulus that extracts a conditioned response.
    On the other hand, in operant conditioning, a behaviour gets weak or firm by using either punishment or reinforcement.
  5. Classical conditioning is also known as respondent conditioning. The other name of operant conditioning is instrumental conditioning.
Difference Between X and Y 24 1
  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
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