Classical & Operant Conditioning

Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner

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Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are fundamental concepts to behavioral science. These concepts are important because they provide a practical and testable area of psychology which can be applied to behavior as well as learning. Conditioning has been studied and advanced by many different researchers but most notably by Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner (Coon & Mitterer, 2013).

Operant and classical conditioning are often misunderstood concepts. Many laypersons believe that conditioning is a simple act of reward and punishment. This view is erroneous as the process of conditioning is far more complex. There are important differences between operant and classical conditioning which show the complexity of these processes.

Ivan Pavlov was the first researcher to describe classical conditioning. After studying dogs, Pavlov discovered that ringing a bell before food is provided, the dogs learned to respond to the bell by salivating in anticipation of the food. Pavlov learned that classical condition consists of four basic elements. The first element of classical conditioning is the unconditioned stimulus. This stimulus is used to produce the second element which is the unconditioned response. In Pavlov’s experiments, the unconditioned stimulus food was presented to the dog which resulted in the production of saliva which is the unconditioned response. The third element of classical conditioning is the incorporation of the neutral stimulus prior to the unconditioned response. Consistent and frequent pairing of the neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus, results in the conditioned response which is the fourth element of conditioning (salvation at the sound of the bell). Pavlov showed that dogs learned to associate the ringing of a bell with food, which caused a conditioned response of salivation even if food was not presented.

Because classical conditioning focuses on involuntary behaviors this could be used to reduce certain habitual behaviors such as nail chewing of drug use. This would involve the placement of a neutral signal before a habitual behavior such as ringing a bell. The person could be given something unpleasant such as foul-tasting food which could be associated with the habit. After repeated pairing of the foul-tasting food with the ringing of the bell a natural reflex should develop in which the person remembers the taste when he or she hears the bell. This could be used to stop a behavior by ringing a bell whenever the person starts to behave a certain way such as biting their nails.

In contrast to classical conditioning, operant conditioning focuses on strengthening or weakening certain behaviors through the application of reinforcement or punishment after the behavior (Coon & Mitterer, 2013). B.F. Skinner believed that learned behaviors are triggered by outside stimuli by means of reinforcement, punishment and rewards (Coon & Mitterer, 2013). Within the framework of operant conditioning, reinforcements are positive or negative. Positive reinforcement is a form of reward or praise for behaving in a specific manner. Negative reinforcement is the withholding of a reward or praise for improper behavior. Punishment is often seen as a form of negative reinforcement but this is a misunderstood area of conditioning. The point of conditioning is to reinforce good or desired behaviors. According to Skinner, punishment is considered a detractor from reinforcement (Chiesa, 2004).

Skinner believed that reinforcement was a means of shaping behaviors. Punishment weakens behavior s because it does not provide a positive association with the desired behavior. This idea works due to the fact that when a desired behavior is performed a positive association is made through the reinforcement, but with punishment there is no reinforcement but instead an undesirable outcome which can have the impact of stopping a behavior but does nothing to reinforce a good behavior (Chiesa, 2004). For example, a child who is drawing on a wall with a crayon may be taught to stop this behavior by rewarding the child when he or she draws on paper. The withholding of the reward or praise when the child draws on the wall reinforces the behavior of drawing on paper. In contrast to this scenario, punishment may teach the child to stop drawing on the wall but does not reinforce the good behavior of drawing on paper. As such this detracts from learning because the child may be apt to draw on a table or on a different wall.

Both operant and classical conditioning are important psychological concepts because they provide testable and practical tools for learning and behaviorism. These concepts have helped shape behavioral science and are still used today in therapies and in studying behavior in humans and animals. Operant and classical conditioning may still yield more discoveries in human psychology.


Chiesa, M. (2004). Radical Behaviorism: The Philosophy and the Science. Cambridge, Mass.: Cambridge Center for Behavioral Science.

Coon, D., & Mitterer, J. O. (2013). Introduction to psychology: Gateways to mind and behavior (13th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Cengage Learning.


Vincent Triola. Tue, Feb 02, 2021. Classical & Operant Conditioning Retrieved from