Have you ever wondered why hearing a certain song makes you happy? Or, why does a child consistently help a friend after being praised for it? The conditioning theory of learning might just have all the answers!


  1. What Is Conditioning Theory Of Learning?

  2. Classical Conditioning Theory

  3. Operant Conditioning Theory

  4. Embrace Growth

What Is Conditioning Theory Of Learning?


The conditioning theory of learning describes a form of learning where learning occurs as a result of associating a condition or stimulus with a particular reaction or response. Human behavior is shaped by habits we pick up in response to certain situations in life and is the outcome of learning by conditioning theory.

There are two main types of the conditioning theory of learning—classical conditioning theory and operant conditioning theory. Now that we know what is conditioning learning, let’s look at each of its two types in detail.

Classical Conditioning Theory


The classical conditioning theory says learning occurs when a natural stimulus is paired with a neutral stimulus to produce a response. Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov was the proponent of the classical conditioning theory.

In his famous experiment with a dog, Pavlov rang a bell before giving the dog his food. He repeated this multiple times, always pairing the ringing of the bell with the dog’s food. Eventually, the dog started associating the sound of the bell with food. He began salivating in anticipation of the food as soon as he heard the bell, even when food wasn’t actually present.

Learning by the classical conditioning theory involves the following:

1. Unconditioned Stimulus

A stimulus that naturally provokes an involuntary behavior is an unconditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, the dog’s food is the unconditioned stimulus that causes the dog to start salivating.

2. Unconditioned Response

A natural response that automatically occurs in reaction to the unconditioned stimulus is the unconditioned response. The dog salivating at the sight of the food is an unconditioned response.

 3. Conditioned Stimulus

A conditioned stimulus initially has no relevance to the organism in question—it’s a neutral stimulus. But once it’s paired with the unconditioned stimulus, it starts eliciting a response. In Pavlov’s experiment, the bell is the conditioned stimulus.

 4. Conditioned Response

After an unconditioned stimulus has been paired with the conditioned stimulus, the conditioned stimulus alone evokes the same reaction as the unconditioned stimulus. This reaction is called a conditioned response. It’s the learned response to the conditioned stimulus. The dog salivating at the sound of the bell is a conditioned response.

The classical conditioning theory of learning explains much of our daily behavior and phobias. For instance, an enclosed space is a neutral stimulus that a person is indifferent to. But after getting stuck in an elevator, the person begins associating that feeling of fear with enclosed spaces, developing claustrophobia.

Operant Conditioning Theory


Also known as instrumental conditioning, operant conditioning theory says learning develops through rewards and punishments for specific behavior. According to this theory, when an organism behaves in a manner that results in a reward, they’re more likely to repeat that behavior in the future. Similarly, behavior that leads to punishment is less likely to recur.

The operant conditioning theory of learning is attributed to American psychologist B.F. Skinner, who based his work on Edward Thorndike’s law of effect. Skinner conducted an experiment with a rat in a Skinner box. The box had a lever that released food pellets on being pressed. The rat coincidentally discovered this lever, associated it with food and learned to press the lever to receive food.

Learning by operant conditioning theory involves the following:

1. Positive Reinforcement

Positive reinforcement involves strengthening a behavior by a reward. The reward acts as a reinforcing stimulus. The food pellets in Skinner’s experiment were the reinforcing stimulus, encouraging the rat to press the lever. 

2. Negative Reinforcement

Negative reinforcement happens when something unpleasant stops happening following a certain behavior. To demonstrate this, Skinner conducted another experiment with the rat in an electrified Skinner box. The rat discovered that on pressing a lever within the box, the electric current was switched off. It, therefore, learned to immediately press that lever on entering the electrified box.

3. Punishment

Punishment aims to reduce the frequency of a particular behavior. It can be either positive or negative. In positive punishment, something unpleasant occurs as a result of a particular behavior, while in negative punishment something pleasant is removed after a specific behavior.


Operant conditioning theory finds diverse applications, especially in training scenarios. A child being rewarded after acing a test and being scolded after being rude are examples of operant conditioning.

Embrace Growth


The father of modern management, Peter F. Drucker, said, “…learning is a lifelong process of keeping abreast of change.”

Learning is indispensable to growing as an individual, nurturing our minds and improving our quality of life. Harappa’s Learning Expertly course puts you on a path to being a self-motivated and agile learner.

With frameworks such as Kolb’s Learning Cycle, Growth Mindset and Learning Transfer, you’ll relearn from life’s experiences, identify abilities that can be improved and apply learnings from one situation to another. We’ll show you how to acquire new knowledge, adopt a fresh approach to existing problems and leave behind ideas that no longer serve a purpose. Sign up today for Harappa’s Learning Expertly course and embrace growth!

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