Operant Conditioning vs. Classical Conditioning: 8 Key Differences

Conditioning is a type of learning that links what people see and hear to how they act and what they do.

In other words, it means making a connection between two things to change someone’s behavior. There are two main types of conditioning: operant conditioning and classical conditioning.

What Is Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning is when a conditioned response is combined with a neutral stimulus. In Pavlov’s dogs, Ivan Pavlov taught dogs to salivate when they heard a metronome. This is the best-known example of this.

The dogs had never reacted to the metronome before, so it was a neutral stimulus.

Pavlov used the metronome every time he fed the dogs, and they got used to hearing it. They were taught to salivate, so that’s what they did.

What Is Operant Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is different from classical conditioning in that it uses reinforcement to encourage or discourage a behavior.

Operant conditioning teaches dogs to sit by giving them a treat when they do. Classical conditioning teaches dogs to lick their lips when they hear a metronome.

B.F. Skinner came up with the idea of operant conditioning. He did a simple experiment with a rat to test the idea.

During the test, a hungry rat is put in a box. The rat finds a lever while looking around. When it pulls the lever, it gets food. The rat learns to push the lever to get food in the end.

In operant conditioning, you can use positive reinforcement, like giving a dog a treat or feeding a rat.

Negative reinforcement can also be used. For example, if a dog walks close to its owner, the owner can praise the dog by letting go of the dog’s painful leash.

Operant Conditioning vs. Classical Conditioning

In operant conditioning, there are times when punishment is used. In all cases of operant conditioning, the target behaviour is strengthened by the results of the behaviour.

What Is The Main Distinction Between Operant And Classical Conditioning?

Operant conditioning is the study of how experiences can directly change how people act. In contrast, classical conditioning occurs when a response occurs automatically before a response.

To put it another way, operant conditioning helps people learn from their actions and experiences, while classical conditioning focuses on more automatic, instinctive responses.

Classical conditioning is about automatic and uncontrollable behaviour, while operant conditioning is about behaviour that people choose to do.

They are both types of conditioning, but they are different in many ways. By getting a handle on these ideas, we can learn more about how behaviour is taught and changed.

What is the Difference Between an Unconditional and Conditional Stimulus?

An organism that has never been conditioned reacts to a stimulus that has never been conditioned.

Think about a puppy that has been taught to drool when a bell rings. This is a response that has been taught or conditioned by the presence of food.

The sound of the bell (a conditioned stimulus) now makes the dog act the same way as when it sees food (an unconditioned stimulus). This is what operant conditioning looks like.

8 Main Distinctions Between Operant Conditioning And Classical Conditioning

  1. One way to tell the difference between operant and classical conditioning is to think about the behaviours that people do, whether they want to or not. Classical conditioning is all about things we do without thinking about them. On the other hand, operant conditioning is about behaviours that we do because we want to or because we think we will be rewarded in the end.
  2. At the beginning of the 20th century, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov found out how operant conditioning works. On the other hand, classical conditioning is a way of learning that was discovered by an American scientist named B.F. Skinner in 1938.
  3. There are two ways for organisms to learn: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning happens when organisms learn to link stimuli in such a way that the appearance of one stimulus makes the appearance of another stimulus more likely. Operant conditioning is the process of teaching animals how to act based on what happens to them when they act in a certain way.
  4. Through operant conditioning, the behaviour of the organism changes based on the results. In classical conditioning, on the other hand, the researcher learns to link things based on automatic responses that happen before the thing being linked.
  5. Classical conditioning is based on automatic or reflexive behaviour, while operant conditioning is based on actions that people choose to do. The first one is about how the body works, while the second one is about how the mind and body react to things like feelings and ideas.
  6. Operant conditioning is when an animal or person learns to connect a certain behaviour with a certain outcome. Classical conditioning is the process by which an animal or person learns to link a certain stimulus with a certain response.
  7. Operant conditioning is when an animal or person learns to connect a certain behaviour with a certain outcome. On the other hand, classical conditioning makes a difference between stimuli that are not conditioned and those that are. Operant conditioning doesn’t tell us what the conditioned stimulus is.
  8. An experimenter is in charge of unconditioned stimuli. The organism continues to be in charge of the reinforcer. This difference between active and passive is what makes operant conditioning different from classical conditioning. In operant conditioning, the organism actively seeks reinforcement, while in classical conditioning, the organism is mostly passive.

Comparison Table

BasisOperant ConditioningClassical Conditioning
MeaningThe learning in which the organism studies the relation between responses and their consequencesWhen learning is possible by forming an association between two stimuli
Stresses onWhat follows the response?What precedes response?
Based onVoluntary behaviorInvoluntary / reflexive behavior
ResponsesUnder control of organismUnder control of stimulus
StimulusThe conditioned stimulus is not definedConditioned and Unconditioned stimulus are well defined
Occurrence of unconditioned stimulusControlled by organismControlled by experimenter

Operant vs. Classical Conditioning Examples

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are both used by teachers, parents, therapists, animal trainers, and others to achieve different goals.

A trainer can use classical conditioning to train an animal by linking the sound of a clicker to the taste of food over and over again. At some point, the sound of the clicker will have the same effect as food.

In the classroom, a teacher might use operant conditioning by giving out tokens for good behaviour.

Operant Conditioning vs. Classical Conditioning

The students can then trade these tokens for something like a treat or more time to play. In each of these situations, the goal of conditioning is to cause some kind of behaviour change.

Both Are Part of Behaviorism

Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning are important to the study of behavioural psychology.

Behaviorism includes both types of conditioning, and it’s interesting to learn how these ideas are used.


Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning are important learning ideas in the field of behavioural psychology.

Even though there are some similarities between these two types of conditioning, it is important to understand the main differences in order to know which method is best for different learning situations.

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