Classical Vs. Operant Conditioning – 15 Differences [Explained]

Classical Vs. Operant Conditioning

Classical and operant conditioning are the two learning theories centered in behavioral psychology. There are differences and similarities between classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Both talk about behavioral learning. In classical conditioning, learning is formed through the association of stimuli, whereas, in operant conditioning, learning occurs from action’s consequences.

In this article, we will explore operant conditioning and classical conditioning, differentiate between them, and find the similarities.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is a fundamental form of learning in which an organism develops a response to a neutral stimulus by associating it with another stimulus that naturally triggers a reaction.

For instance, Ivan Pavlov’s renowned experiment involved pairing a bell with food, causing dogs to eventually salivate upon hearing the bell alone. This process demonstrates how an initially neutral stimulus can evoke a reflexive response through learned association with an existing, meaningful stimulus.

What is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is a learning process where behaviors are modified through reinforcement or punishment. Introduced by B.F. Skinner focuses on how voluntary actions are shaped by their consequences.

Positive and negative reinforcements encourage desired behaviors, while punishments discourage unwanted actions. For instance, rewarding a dog for sitting reinforces that behavior. This method emphasizes the association between actions and their outcomes, influencing the likelihood of future behaviors.

Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Now, let’s differentiate between operant and classical conditioning with their bases of differences:

Learning Type

Classical Conditioning: This form of learning revolves around the association between two stimuli, typically an unconditioned stimulus (US) and a neutral stimulus that becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS) eliciting a conditioned response (CR). For instance, in Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment, dogs associated the ringing of a bell (neutral stimulus) with food (unconditioned stimulus), causing them to salivate (conditioned response).

Operant Conditioning: Unlike classical conditioning, operant conditioning focuses on learning through consequences. It involves modifying behaviors based on the outcome they produce. For example, when a rat receives food (positive reinforcement) after pressing a lever, it learns to repeat the action to receive the reward.

Read More: Schedules of Reinforcement


Classical Conditioning: Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in the early 1900s through his famous dog experiments. His work focused on the association between stimuli and involuntary responses, showcasing how neutral stimuli become conditioned.

Operant Conditioning: B.F. Skinner introduced operant conditioning in 1938, primarily through experiments involving a rat box. Skinner emphasized the importance of consequences in shaping and modifying behavior.

Behavior Type

Classical Conditioning: Primarily deals with involuntary, reflexive responses. The responses are automatic and occur without conscious control. For instance, the salivation of Pavlov’s dogs in response to the bell ringing was an involuntary reaction.

Operant Conditioning: Involves voluntary, goal-directed behaviors initiated by the individual or organism. Animals or individuals actively engage in behaviors to obtain rewards or avoid punishments. The rat pressing the lever to receive food demonstrates voluntary action.


Classical Conditioning: Establishes a connection between a previously neutral stimulus and an involuntary response through repeated associations. This pairing creates a learned response to the neutral stimulus.

Operant Conditioning: Operates based on consequences, reinforcing or discouraging behaviors. Rewards (reinforcement) or punishments are linked to specific behaviors to shape future actions.

Read More: Positive Vs. Negative Punishment

Initiation Sequence

Classical Conditioning: The sequence involves the presentation of the conditioned stimulus before the response occurs. For instance, in Pavlov’s experiment, the bell ringing (conditioned stimulus) precedes the dog’s salivation (conditioned response).

Operant Conditioning: In this scenario, the behavior is initiated by the organism before any reinforcement or punishment. For example, the rat presses the lever (behavior) before receiving food (positive reinforcement).

Controlled Actions

Classical Conditioning: Responses are controlled by external stimuli. The association between the conditioned stimulus and the conditioned response is involuntary and controlled by the presented stimuli.

Operant Conditioning: Behaviors are controlled by the organism itself. The individual actively chooses to engage in certain behaviors based on the expected consequences, either seeking rewards or avoiding punishments.

Read More: 8 Pros and 7 Cons of Negative Punishment

Voluntary vs. Involuntary

Classical Conditioning: Involves responses that are largely involuntary and automatic. These responses are triggered by a specific stimulus. For instance, in Pavlov’s experiment, the dogs’ salivation in response to the bell ringing was an involuntary reaction.

Operant Conditioning: Encompasses voluntary actions that an organism performs intentionally. The individual actively engages in behaviors based on the consequences they expect. For instance, a rat learns to press a lever voluntarily to obtain food.

Outcome Types

Classical Conditioning: Results in conditioned responses linked to involuntary stimuli. The neutral stimulus becomes associated with an involuntary response, creating a learned behavior. For instance, the bell became associated with the dogs’ salivation.

Operant Conditioning: Influences behaviors through reinforcements or punishments. Behaviors are encouraged by positive reinforcements (like treats for a dog) or discouraged by punishments (like a time-out for a child).

Read More: Negative Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Stimulus-Response Association

Classical Conditioning: Involves creating an association between a neutral stimulus and an involuntary response. The neutral stimulus gains the ability to elicit the response after being repeatedly paired with an unconditioned stimulus.

Operant Conditioning: Connects behaviors with consequences. The likelihood of behavior recurrence is altered based on the reinforcement or punishment provided. For instance, a rat learns to press a lever to receive food or avoid a shock.

Involvement of Reflexive Behavior

Classical Conditioning: Primarily deals with reflexive, involuntary behaviors. The responses are automatic and are not under the organism’s control, such as salivation or fear responses.

Operant Conditioning: Focuses on behaviors initiated by the organism’s choices and actions. The individual actively engages in behaviors based on the potential outcomes or consequences, making it voluntary and intentional.

Read More: 8 Pros and 7 Cons of Positive Punishment

Voluntary Action Modification

Classical Conditioning: Primarily revolves around altering involuntary reflexes in response to stimuli. It’s exemplified in Pavlov’s experiment, where the neutral stimulus (bell) was paired with an unconditioned response (salivation), eventually evoking a conditioned response (salivation upon hearing the bell).

Operant Conditioning: Focuses on shaping voluntary behaviors through reinforcement or punishment. For instance, rewarding a rat with food for pressing a lever or disciplining a child for undesirable behavior.

Consequence Influence

Classical Conditioning: Alters responses based on the association between a neutral stimulus and an involuntary response. It links the neutral stimulus with an existing reflex, modifying behavior.

Operant Conditioning: Modifies behaviors based on the outcomes they yield. If a behavior results in a favorable consequence, it’s reinforced, increasing the likelihood of its recurrence. If it leads to an unfavorable outcome, it’s likely to decrease.

Behavioral Incentives

Classical Conditioning: Based on involuntary stimuli that create conditioned responses. The pairing of neutral stimuli with innate reflexes forms associations and influences subsequent behavior.

Read More: Positive Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Operant Conditioning: Centers on voluntary actions influenced by reinforcements or punishments. The behavior’s occurrence is tied to the consequences it brings, encouraging or discouraging its repetition.

Behavior Control

Classical Conditioning: Focuses on controlling responses through stimulus association. The organism’s reaction to a previously neutral stimulus becomes predictable and controlled due to the conditioning process.

Operant Conditioning: Empowers individuals to control behaviors based on consequences. The organism learns to anticipate outcomes and modify behavior accordingly to achieve desired results.

Behavior Modification Approach

Classical Conditioning: Forms associations between stimuli and responses. It emphasizes the connection between a neutral stimulus and an innate response, altering behavior through learned associations.

Operant Conditioning: Modifies behaviors by associating them with reinforcements or punishments. The focus is on the consequences of actions, where behaviors are reinforced or discouraged based on these outcomes.

Read More: Punishment in Operant Conditioning

Similarities Between Operant and Classical Conditioning

Operant and classical conditioning, despite their differences, share several similarities in their fundamental principles. Both involve forms of associative learning where behaviors are acquired through connections with stimuli or consequences.

They rely on the principles of reinforcement – strengthening a behavior – and punishment – discouraging a behavior – to shape and alter responses. Additionally, both types of conditioning have practical applications in understanding and modifying behaviors in humans and animals.

They contribute significantly to the study of learning processes, behavior modification, and the development of habits. Despite distinct methodologies, these conditioning types fundamentally explore the relationship between stimuli, responses, and the acquisition of behaviors in various settings, including clinical and experimental environments.

Read Next: Positive Vs. Negative Reinforcement: 12 Differences

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