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Compare Contrast Operant & Classical Conditioning

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Learning is any relatively permanent change in behaviour due to experience (Grivas et al, 1999: 318). Conditioning is the acquisition of specific patterns of behaviour in the presence of well-define stimuli (Termpapers, 2003: 01). Learning is the unconscious association between two stimuli which brings about stimulus substitution: Classical Conditioning, CC, Pavlov and the encoding of consequences: Operant Conditioning, OC, Skinner (Grivas et al. 1999: 346-349). This essay will compare and contrast the two learning theories, focusing on the main similarities and differences that exist.

CC (otherwise known as respondent or Pavlovian conditioning (Weiten, 2001: 222 & Copper et al, 1987: 19) was first described by Pavlov in 1899 after unintentional observations into his research of the digestive system of dogs lead him to conduct research into what is referred to now as CC; simple form of learning which occurs through repeated associations between two (or more) different stimuli (Grivas, 1999: 326) . It occurs when a previously neutral stimulus (CS) is paired with an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) which elicits a reflex response (UCR). This results in the CS electing a conditioned response (CR) that is similar or identical to the UCR (Rachlin, 1970: 62-64). CC accounts for emotional and attitidual changes in behaviour and rids of undesired behaviours ( Grivas, 1999: 333-338).

Whilst CC provides a useful explanation of reflexive responding that is largely controlled by stimuli that precede the response (Weiten, 2001: 232 & Grivas et al, 1999: 345), behaviours which are voluntary (actively operate on the environment) cannot be explained using CC (Grivas et al, 1999: 345 & Cooper et al, 1987: 22) . Individuals learning is mainly influenced by stimulus events that follow the response, specifically its the consequences (Weiten, 2001: 232). In order to explain these complex and voluntary behaviours, another form of learning called Operant Conditioning (also referred to as instrumental conditioning) was developed by Skinner in 1930 (Grivas et al, 1999: 345). OC is the conscious process in which the consequences of behaviour lead to the likelihood of behaviour recurring (Termpapers, 2003: 01).

OC occurs when random behaviour is reinforced and a conscious association is made by the individual between the behaviour and consequences and later the antecedent stimulus, which becomes the discriminative stimulus, signals the contingency of reinforcement available (whether a response leads to reinforcement) (Baldwin, 1998: 42-51). It is based on the assumption that an individual will tend to repeat behaviour that has a desirable consequence and tend not to repeat behaviour that has an undesirable consequence (Grivas et al, 1999: 345). The first studies into this theory of learning were undertaken by Thorndike (1913) (Weiten, 2001: 232).

The results of his studies with cats led to the development of the law of effect: if a response in the presence of a stimulus leads to satisfying consequences, the association between stimuli and response is strengthened (Weiten, 2001: 232, Grivas et al, 1999: 346). Thorndike viewed instrumental learning as a mechanical process in which successful responses are gradually indented in by their desired responses (Weiten, 2001: 232). Thorndike’s work provided the foundation for much of Skinners work and the formation of OC (Weiten, 2001: 232).

Many similarities exist between the two conditioning theories. As both are learning processes, both CC and OC bring about a change in behaviour (Grivas et al, 1999: 318) or result in the inheritance of behaviour (Termpapers, 2003: 01). They are also both types of direct learning: they rely on direct participation from the learner in the experience, making it a slow process (Temper, 2003: 01). Another similarity is both CC and OC have stage of acquisition in which a response is conditioned or learned (Grivas et al, 1999: 374). Both types of conditioning are achieved as a result of repeated associations of two events which follow in close approximations (Grivas et al, 1999: 374). However they differ in that CC is an unconscious association between two stimuli and OC is a conscious process of learning (Temper, 2003: 01).

In both types of conditioning, extinction occurs however they slightly vary in the process (Grivas et al, 1999: 374). In CC, extinction refers to the gradual weakening or disappearance of the CR resulting from the continuos presentation of the CS alone (Grivas at al, 1999: 329). In OC however, the discontinuation of any reinforcement that had once maintained a given behaviour is referred to as extinction (Baldwin, 1998: 57). When reinforcement is withdrawn from the learning process, the frequency or rate of response decreases (Baldwin, 1998: 57). In CC, extinction takes place over a period of time when the UCS is withdrawn (Grivas et al, 1999: 363). Extinction within OC also occurs over time, but following the termination of reinforcement. (Grivas et al, 1999: 363)

Another similarity that is present between the two learning theories is spontaneous recovery Extinction in both CC and OC can be interrupted by Spontaneous recovery (Grivas e al, 1999: 374). In CC, spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of a conditioned response when the CS is presented, following a rest period (i.e. when the CS is not presented) after the conditioned response appears to have been extinguished. (Grivas, 1999: 330). Similar to CC, extinction is not permanent in OC. After a period of time in which a stimulus is presented with no following reinforcement, the individual will once again show the CR if the reinforcer is presented in (Grivas et al, 1999: 363) In each of the learning theories, the consequences bring about a change in behaviour. For learning to occur, consequences must be either a reward: presentation of a pleasant or desired stimulus or punishment; presentation of an aversive stimulus. (Grivas et al, 1999:349-353).

In CC it is the consequences of the behaviour that bring about stimulus substitution. The consequences are inherent in the UCS (Temper, 2003: 01). However the behaviour of the learner does not have any environmental consequences (Grivas et al, 1999: 374). In OC, emphasis lies on the consequences of a response (behaviour is more or less likely to reoccur depending on the consequences) (Grivas et al, 1999: 374).

Both CC and OC demonstrate stimulus generalisation and discrimination although this is not unique to conditioning (Grivas et al, 1999: 374). Stimulus generalisation in CC, is the tendency for another stimulus – one which is similar to the original conditioned stimulus – to produce a response which is similar (but not necessarily identical) to the conditioned response. (Grivas et al, 1999: 330). This is similar to OC; responding increases in the presence of new stimulus that resembles original discriminative stimulus from which reinforcement is obtained (Weiten, 2001: 237 & Grivas et al, 1999: 363). Stimulus discrimination occurs in CC when an individual responds to the CS only, not to any other stimuli which may resemble it (Grivas et al, 1999: 331). Discrimination occurs in a similar way in OC, where an individual makes a correct response to a stimulus for which reinforcement is obtained, but responding does not increase in the presence of a new stimulus that is similar to the original discriminative stimulus (Grivas et al, 1999: 364)

There are many specific differences that separate the two learning theories from one another. In general, the type of method to which each method applies differs (Termpapers, 2003: 01). CC applies to behaviours that are wanted or desired (Termpapers, 2003: 01) and is used to modify behaviour. OC however applies to behaviours that can be learned or extinguished thus shaping behavioural patterns (Termpapers, 2003: 01). The main components of CC are stimulus and response; the stimulus causes the response, compared to OC which places more emphasis on an individuals behaviour and the consequences; the consequences influences the behaviour (Del Mar College, 2003: 01). CC is under direct control of the stimulus where as the consequences following an operant behaviour are the prime movers of operant conditioning (Baldwin, 1998: 42). In CC, the antecedent stimulus automatically activates specific response (Baldwin, 1998: 42). However, in OC, the antecedent stimulus merely sets the occasion for various thoughts and actions (Baldwin, 1998: 42).

Some of the differences between OC and CC lie in the extent to which reinforcement depends on the behaviour of the learner. In CC, the learner is automatically reinforced. That is how it learns to respond to a once neutral stimulus. In OC, the learner must provide a correct response in order to receive the reinforcement (Termpapers, 2003: 01). Unlike CC, OC is voluntary behaviour – behaviour that can be controlled (Grivas et al, 1999: 345). This is demonstrated through shaping. Shaping consists of the reinforcement of closer and closer approximations to the desired complex behavioural pattern (Weiten, 2001: 235). Shaping is used when the desired response as a low probability of occurring naturally (Grivas 358) such as Skinner shaping a pigeon to turn a full circle.

CC and OC are both viable learning theories which can account for real life changes in behaviour but are unable to account for an individuals large repertoire of social behaviours. Many similarities do exist between the two types of learning, with many psychologists favouring the view that both CC and OC are variants of a single learning process (Grivas et al, 1999: 374). However, numerous major differences do exist which has separated CC and OC and classified them into two separate learning theories.


Baldwin, J.D, & Baldwin, J.I. (1998). Behavior Principles in Everyday life. (3rd ed). New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Cooper, J.O., & Heron, T.E., & Heward, W.L. (1987). Applied Behavior Analysis. Ohio: Merrill Publishing Company.

Del Mar College: Differences Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. Retrieved April 1, 2003 from http://www.delmar.edu/socsci/Faculty/Perry/diff_classical_oper_cond.htm.

Grivas, J. & Down, R., & Carter, L. (1999). Psychology. (2nd ed). South Yarra: Macmillan.

Rachlin, H. (1970). Introduction to Modern Behaviorism. (2nd ed). San Francisco: W.H Freeman Company.

Termpapers: Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning. Retrieved March 28, 2003 from http://www.free-termpapers.com/tp/37/pnl51.shtml.

Weiten, W. (2001). Psychology Themes and Variations. (5th ed). USA: Wadsworth.

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