Comparing Classical and Operant Conditioning

Subject: Psychology
Type: Compare and Contrast Essay
Pages: 3
Word count: 604
Topics: Cognitive Psychology, Human Nature

Classical conditioning is a theory developed about the ability to learn behavior through the process of association. The approach involves the bringing together of two stimuli that result in the production of a newly acquired response in an animal or person. Ivan Pavlov is the researcher attributed to the development of this theory in which automatic responses are coming about from experiences occurring before a response (McLeod, 2014). The classical conditioning theory has three stages that include before conditioning, during conditioning, and after conditioning. The reaction to stimuli is different in each of these steps, and the responses end up affecting behavior.

The development of the operant conditioning theory was by Skinner, where behavioral learning takes place as a result of experiences after the response (Moore, 2012). Operant conditioning revolves around changing voluntary behavior where a behavior change is accompanied by reinforcement or reprimand. Reinforcement translates to an enhancement in a specific practice while reprimand deters the act from occurring. 

The similarities in the two theories are evident in aspects such as the ability to develop new behaviors as a result of associative learning. The associative learning comes about from the stimuli in classical conditioning and the reinforcement or punishment in operant conditioning. Another similarity in the two theories is that there is a likelihood of the behaviors becoming extinct. The extinction of the response likely emanates from the lack of stimuli in classical conditioning and the lack of reinforcement or punishment in operant conditioning. With behaviors likely to become extinct, they are also likely to recover spontaneously. The two theories also exhibit a generalization and discrimination of behavior. Other similarities lie in the fact that the two approaches are used in teaching new behavior to organisms, and the application of the different techniques is without the knowledge of the organism.

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One of the differences in the two theories is that while classical conditioning results in reflexive and involuntary behaviors, operant conditioning results in non-reflexive and voluntary behaviors. Such comes about from the fact that while classical conditioning brings about behavior change as elicited by a stimulus, operant conditioning results in behavior change as emitted by the organism. Another difference in behavioral learning from the two approaches is that classical conditioning involves passive learning, where the learner is the object of the experience (Sharf, 2011). In contrast, operant conditioning is such that the learner is usually the subject of the behavior change experience and this passes as an active learning experience. The effectiveness of classical conditioning is dependent upon the size of the response while the effectiveness of the operant conditioning is reliant upon the frequency of the reaction. 

An example of classical conditioning out of personal experience is the consideration of commercial breaks as a time to get food or snacks. During live matches, I have found myself using the commercial breaks to get food or snacks even when I do not need the food. Therefore, such comes about from the consideration of the commercial break as stimuli for getting food, and this creates an essence of hunger during the commercial break to emphasize the need to consume food. On operant conditioning, an example is in a situation where I kissed someone, and the response was positive through enthusiastic kissing that served as reinforcement. The reinforcement encouraged the behavior, and this led to continued kissing not just at that time but in other encounters as well.    

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  1. McLeod, S. (2014). Classical conditioning.
  2. Moore, J. (2012). A neuroscientist’s guide to classical conditioning. NY: Springer Science. 
  3. Sharf, R. (2011). Theories of psychotherapy and counseling: Concepts and cases. London: Cengage Learning. 
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