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Compare and contrast classical conditioning with operant conditioning

The learning theory has been emphasized and scrutinized since the age of ancient Greek philosophers. However, it was the nineteenth century that marked major development into the study of learning. In particular, the work of Ian Petrovich Pavlov (2849-1936) brought forward the phenomena of classical conditioning. It can be defined as ‘A form of learning in which a previously neutral stimulus, the conditioned stimulus (CS), is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) regardless of what the animal does.’ (Smith et al, 2003) In 1911, Edward Thorndike (1874-1949) proposed his theory the ‘Law of Effect’ within operant conditioning.

However his work would be surpassed with the work of B.F. Skinner (1904-1990). He was able to show the clear distinction between classical and operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is ‘a form of learning in which the reinforcer (e.g. food) is given only if the animal performs the desired response (e.g. pressing a lever)’ (Gleitman, 2003)

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There are many comparisons and contrasts within the acquisition of both learning theories. In his study of classical conditioning Pavlov used animals because he believed they would give ‘considerable insights into the workings of the human brain.’ (Fulcher, 2003) From previous research Pavlov was aware that when a dog is presented with food, it begins to salivate. He then repeatedly rang a bell (CS) before the food (UCS) was presented to the dog. The results of his research showed that before classical conditioning the UCS would result in an unconditioned response, UCR (salivation).

Before classical conditioning, when the CS was presented alone, the dog showed no response. During classical conditioning, the CS and the UCS were paired together resulting in a conditioned response, CR (salivation). After classical conditioning when the CS was presented alone the dog would begin to salivate before the food was even visible. From this it can be shown that unconditioned reflexes are part of the organism’s biology whilst conditioned responses are acquired through learning.

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In 1911, Thorndike invented the ‘Puzzle Box.’ Similar to Pavlov, he too used animals in his experiments. A cat was placed inside a box with a door that could be opened by pressing a lever. When the cat was placed in the box the first time, its first response was meowing, clawing, etc. which continued for several minutes until the cat accidentally hit the lever which opened the door. Following tests showed fewer struggles and less time to press the lever, which opened the door. One might expect that the cat understood the relationship between the lever and the door.

However, when analyzing his results Thorndike discovered that the cats learned to escape from the box gradually showing that the cats did not understand the solution to the problem. Instead, he proposed that the Law of Effect had taken place. In reference to the cat, its initial response (meowing, etc) is not rewarded. However, by pulling the lever the cat is able to escape and receives a reward of food. The Law of Effect refers to a response being strengthened when it is followed y a positive reward and a response being weakened when followed by a negative reward or none at all.

Skinner adopted a different approach to operant learning. His focus was on the response rate of the organism. He crafted an experimental chamber, which would measure the animals’ response rate. Instead of placing the animals in a box, as Thorndike did, he placed the animal in the presence of the lever. The animal would remain in the presence of the lever for about an hour until the animal learns that pressing the lever is a good way to obtain food, thus causing reinforcement. The rate at which they press the lever would be recorded. From his results, Skinner discovered that the faster the response rate the faster reinforcement would be achieved.

Further research into classical conditioning showed that extinction is achievable. The method used is not different from the one used to establish the conditioning initially. The CR will disappear if the CS is repeatedly presented alone without the UCS. The dog will begin to salivate less and learn that the CS is no longer a signal for food. Spontaneous recovery is also achievable through reconditioning studies have shown that the learning progresses quicker than the initial conditioning did. In addition, Pavlov was able to show the animals could generalize.

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The animals can respond to a range of stimuli that are similar to the original CS. For example, a dog conditioned to respond to yellow light will also respond to orange light although the response will be weaker. Animals can also be conditioned to discriminate within classical conditioning. For example, a dog will be conditioned to salivate only to a black square. When shown a grey square, he dog will at first salivate but after repeatedly not receiving the food (UCS), it will learn to salivate only to the black square and never to the grey one.

Extinction can also be achieved in operant conditioning. In this case, extinction will be observed if the lever pressing (response) does not obtain food (reinforcer). External stimuli are not used in operant conditioning but generalization and discrimination can still be achieved. For example, a pigeon trained to peck at a yellow light will be less inclined to peck at a light of a different wavelength. Shaping can also be achieved. An animal can be trained to give a complex response through the reinforcement of successive approximations. ‘In shaping the reinforcement becomes more specific as behaviour approaches the desired response.’ (Fulcher, 2003)

Classical conditioning can be applied to other aspects of life. For example, classical conditioning can be used to cure phobias. This is achieved by pairing the phobia (UCS) with a normal behaviour such as eating (CS). The role of the CS is to make the person relax and remain calm. Therefore when paired together repeatedly the UCS will no longer be feared. Aversion therapy also uses classical conditioning to cure addiction or habits such as smoking. The technique used is to associate the habit with something aversive such as vomiting. Raymond (1964) used this procedure to help a fourteen-year-old to stop smoking. Whenever the boy smoked, he was given an injection of apomorphine, which causes vomiting. The result of this was that the boy felt ill whenever he smoked.

Operant conditioning can also be used socially. For example, token economies can be used with children, in the workplace and even in detention centres. Philips (1968) showed that when juvenile delinquents are given snacks, money or special privileges for good behaviour, there was a major increase in good behaviour and more time was spent studying and completing homework. Operant conditioning can also be used to help explain why people suffer from depression. It is thought that people find themselves ‘helpless’ after experiencing events in which they cannot control and thus fall into depression.

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In conclusion, there are many comparisons and contrasts between classical and operant conditioning. In comparison when discussing the acquisition, both classical and operant conditioning needs repeated episodes to achieve the desired response. Extinction, recovery, discrimination and generalization both occur in the conditionings. Both classical and operant conditioning are applied socially, however, they are used in different circumstances.

In contrast, classical conditioning is autonomic i.e. the responses are typically reflexive. For example, salivation. Whilst in operant conditioning responses are sympathetic i.e. the responses are spontaneous. When discussing the acquisition, reinforcement depends on the proper response. However, in the classical condition, the US is still presented even if the desired response is incorrect.


Fulcher, E. Cognitive Psychology (2003) Crucial, Glasgow

Gleitman H., Fridland, A.J. and Reisberg Psychology (5th edition) New York: W.W. Norton, 1998

Smith, E., Nolan-Hoeksema, S., Fredrickson, B., and Loftus G.R. (2003) Hilgard and Atkinson’s Introduction to Psychology (14th Ed) London: Thomson-Wadsworth

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