Question Sam Social Sciences

Classical and operant conditioning

Explain the difference between classical and operant conditioning

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Answer Internal Staff

Classical and operant conditioning are two central behaviourism theories relating to how humans learn actions and behaviour. Learning via classical conditioning involves an association being created between a naturally existing stimulus (i.e. the ‘unconditioned stimulus’) and a previously neutral stimulus (i.e. the ‘neutral stimulus’). The result of linking together two stimuli causes the production of a learned response (i.e. the ‘unconditioned response’). Pavlov’s dogs experiment (1897/1902) is one of the most widely known studies in the classical conditioning realm. In this experiment, Pavlov demonstrated the existence of classical conditioning when he conditioned dogs to salivate (unconditioned response) in response to the sound of a bell alone, which was initially rung and followed by the presentation of food (unconditioned stimulus). Thus, the dogs learned to associate the sound of the bell with food, leading to them salivating i.e. an unconditioned response became a learned response.

Operant conditioning differs in that behaviour is learned via the use of reinforcement and punishment, leading to associations being created between certain behaviours and consequences that result from them. A simple example would be a parent who punishes a child for not completing their homework by not letting the child go to play football. Ultimately, the child would learn to associate the two i.e. not completing their homework results in them not being allowed to play football.


Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.