Sana loves animals but she keeps her distance from dogs. She’d been bitten by her neighbor’s bulldog as a child and has been scared of dogs since. Every time Sana sees a dog, she’s reminded of that painful experience. This is a case of classical conditioning.

Arjun spends the night watching a football match instead of studying for his history exam the next day. He tries to smuggle his notes into the exam hall to cheat off them. But he’s caught, reprimanded and barred from the exam. Shocked and embarrassed, Arjun vows to never cheat in an exam again. This is a case of operant conditioning.

Two fundamental theories of conditioning learning, classical and operant conditioning, differ in multiple aspects. But before we explore the difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning, let’s understand the two concepts first.


  1. What Is Classical Conditioning Theory?

  2. What Is Operant Conditioning Theory?

  3. Difference Between Classical And Operant Conditioning

  4. Accelerate Growth

What Is Classical Conditioning Theory?

The classical conditioning theory says learning develops through associations between a natural stimulus and a neutral stimulus. The two stimuli are paired together to elicit a response in an organism. This theory was first proposed by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov.

Pavlov conducted an experiment where he paired a ringing bell with a dog’s food. Eventually, the dog learned to associate the sound of the bell with food and began salivating as soon as it heard the bell, even in the absence of food.

What Is Operant Conditioning Theory?

The operant conditioning theory says learning develops when organisms associate a particular behavior with its consequence. Rewards reinforce a specific behavior, while punishments reduce the frequency of or eliminate a particular behavior. American psychologist B.F. Skinner is known as the father of operant conditioning. He based his work on Edward Thorndike’s law of effect.

Skinner’s experiment with a rat in a Skinner box demonstrates his theory. The Skinner box had a lever that released food when pressed. The rat chanced upon this lever and eventually learned to press it to receive food. The food was the reward that reinforced the rat’s pressing of the lever.

Difference Between Classical And Operant Conditioning

Now that we know what is meant by classical and operant conditioning, let’s look at a few significant differences between the two.


1. Principle Of Learning

In classical conditioning, learning develops through an association between two different stimuli, the natural or the unconditioned stimulus and the neutral or the conditioned stimulus. In Pavlov’s experiment, the dog’s food is the unconditioned stimulus that elicits a natural response from the dog, while the bell is the conditioned stimulus that evokes a response only after being paired with the unconditioned stimulus. In operant conditioning, learning develops through an association between a behavior and its outcome. In Skinner’s experiment, the rat learns to press the lever only when he realizes that his pressing the lever results in food being dropped.


2. Nature Of Behavior

A significant difference between classical and operant conditioning is the type of behavior it involves. Classical conditioning is based on involuntary or reflexive behavior. The dog in Pavlov’s experiment involuntarily salivates on seeing the food and then on associating the bell with food. However, in operant conditioning, the behavior involved is voluntary. The rat in Skinner’s experiment presses the lever voluntarily to receive the food.


3. Type Of Learning

Classical and operant conditioning differ by the kind of learning they entail. Classical conditioning involves passive learning. The organism can’t choose to participate in the learning process—it happens naturally. Operant conditioning entails active learning, where the organism is required to actively participate in the learning process to be either rewarded or punished.


4. Sequence Of Events

In classical conditioning, the natural response or behavior comes after the stimulus. There’s no way the dog in Pavlov’s experiment salivates before being triggered by the unconditioned or conditioned stimulus. In operant conditioning, the behavior comes before the reward or punishment. The reward or punishment only serves to reinforce or discourage the behavior.


Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning find widespread use in everyday life. You might involuntarily check your phone on hearing a similar ringtone elsewhere as a result of classical conditioning. On the other hand, when you’re offered an incentive in the workplace for excellent performance, your employer is using operant conditioning to encourage you to keep up the good work!

Accelerate Growth

Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning are parts of behavioral psychology. They tell us learning isn’t just about acquiring new knowledge, it’s also about unlearning and relearning from life’s experiences. Harappa’s Learning Expertly course can be your guide to becoming a self-motivated and agile learner. It comes with frameworks such as Kolb’s Learning Cycle, Gibbs’ Reflective Cycle and Growth Mindset. You’ll learn to embrace flexibility, take on challenges at work without overwhelming yourself and quickly bounce back from work-related setbacks.

The online learning course will equip you with the necessary skills to become a lifelong learner. It’ll show you the best way to navigate new experiences while also helping you adopt a fresh approach to existing problems. You’ll figure out how to share credit, look for opportunities to improve your talent and think creatively. Sign up today for Harappa’s Learning Expertly course and accelerate growth!

Explore Harappa Diaries to learn more about topics such as What Is Conditioning Theory, Elements of Classical Conditioning Theory, B.F. Skinner’s Operant Conditioning Theory and Brainwriting Technique to upgrade your knowledge and skills.


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