Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning (Table)

classical conditioning vs operant conditioning, explained below

Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning are theories of learning. Each theory identifies how organisms learn and how that learning changes their behavior.

Classical conditioning says that organisms learn by association. Discerning associations between events that occur contiguously then produces changes in behavior. For example, a dog may realize that every time its owner opens a particular cabinet, food will be placed in its bowl. Understanding this connection leads to the animal getting excited every time the owner approaches the cabinet.

Operant conditioning says that the consequences that follow an action determine the likelihood of it occurring again. For example, a dog may realize that if it raises its paw when hearing its owner say “shake,” it will receive a small treat.

Both theories are in the school of behaviorism, which is focused on overt, observable behavior, as opposed to covert, internal mental processes.

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

During the early to mid-1900s, behaviorism was the predominant theoretical orientation in psychology. Classical and operant conditioning are the two key forms of conditioning within behaviorism.

Here is a table comparison of the two:

AspectOperant ConditioningClassical Conditioning
DefinitionA type of learning where behavior is strengthened or weakened based on consequences, also known as instrumental learning.A type of learning where a neutral stimulus comes to elicit a response after being paired with a stimulus that naturally produces that response.
FounderB.F. SkinnerIvan Pavlov
Key ConceptsPositive Reinforcement, Negative Reinforcement, Positive Punishment, Negative PunishmentUnconditioned Stimulus (US), Unconditioned Response (UR), Conditioned Stimulus (CS), Conditioned Response (CR), Pavlovian response
Examples– Teaching a dog to sit using treats (positive reinforcement).
– Taking away a child’s toy for misbehavior (negative punishment).
– Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell after associating it with food.
– Feeling hungry when hearing a lunch bell.
Strengths– Effective in modifying behavior through consequences.
– Can be applied in various settings like education, parenting, and therapy.
– Demonstrated the fundamental principles of how certain responses can be conditioned.
– Has broad application, from understanding phobias to marketing strategies.
Weaknesses– Over-reliance on external rewards might diminish intrinsic motivation.
– Punishments might lead to fear or aggression, rather than understanding.
– Not all behaviors can be explained through association alone.
– Some critics argue it oversimplifies the complexity of human behavior and emotion, especially in natural environments.

Classical Conditioning Overview

Classical conditioning is sometimes referred to as Pavlovian conditioning, named after the Russian physiologist that first discovered this fundamental principle of learning.

Pavlov discovered classical conditioning when he was conducting research on the digestion system of animals. To do so, he attached a device to the inside of a dog’s mouth to collect the salivatory juices activated during the digestion process.

He would then present food to the dog and collect the juices to analyze their chemical properties. There was only one problem. After a while, his dogs would start to salivate before he presented the food.

One day it dawned on Pavlov that the dogs started to salivate when they heard the footsteps of his assistant who brought the food.

The dogs were learning by association: the sound of footsteps predicted food.

From there, Pavlov conducted various experiments and trained the dogs to salivate in response to the sound of a bell which he rang right before presenting the food.

And that was the beginning of one of the most insightful theories of learning in human history.

Key Terms in Classical Conditioning

There are 4 key terms to know when discussing classical conditioning.

  • Unconditioned stimulus (UCS): This is the stimulus that naturally triggers a response. Food is a UCS because it naturally triggers a biological response such as salivation.
  • Conditioned stimulus (CS): This is the stimulus that is initially neutral in that it does not trigger a response. However, by being associated with the UCS, it begins to trigger the response as well.
  • Unconditioned response (UCR): This is the response that is triggered by the UCS. There is no learning by association needed.
  • Conditioned response (CR): This is the term for the response that is triggered by the UCS after it has been associated with the CS.

Classical Conditioning Examples

  • Treating a Fear of Spiders: Phobias are often treated by conditioning the patient to have a relaxed response to the fear-provoking stimulus. In the case of a spider phobia, the therapist first presents a black and white photo of a small spider, and teaches the patient how to control their body’s reaction through deep-breathing exercises. Over subsequent weeks, this process is repeated with more realistic photos, a toy spider, and eventually a very real spider placed in the patient’s hands.
  • A Dog’s Reaction to the Can Opener: Whenever anyone in the family uses the electric can opener, the family’s dog immediately comes running. This is because the dog has learned that the sound of the can opener sometimes predicts food being placed in their bowl.
  • In School: Students have learned, quickly, that the sound of the afternoon bell means school is over. So, whenever that bell sounds, they jump from their seats, pack their bags, and run out the door like there’s no tomorrow.
  • In the Treatment of Onychophagia (nail-biting)): Neem oil has a very bitter taste, so when it is mixed with finger-nail polish, a person will begin to feel ill whenever they bite their nails. This conditions the person to associate nail-biting with feeling sick.
  • Encouraging Reading: The parents of three children make sure their kids all read for at 30 minutes a day at a specific time. While the kids are reading, the parents put lavender oil in a diffuser so the air is filled with a pleasant and relaxing fragrance. They do this so the kids will associate reading with a positive emotional state.

Operant Conditioning Overview

B. F. Skinner (1965) is the most recognized researcher of operant conditioning. Skinner spent decades identifying different reinforcement schedules that produced different patterns of behavior.

However, the basic principles of operant conditioning can be traced back further in history to the work of Edward Thorndike and the Law of Effect (1898; 1905).

The Law of Effect states that:

“Responses that produce a satisfying effect in a particular situation become more likely to occur again in that situation, and responses that produce a discomforting effect become less likely to occur again in that situation” (Gray, 2007, p. 106).

Thorndike’s Contribution to Operant Conditioning

Thorndike developed the Law of Effect based on his research on how cats escaped an apparatus he created called a “puzzle box.”

The puzzle box was designed so that the only way the cat could escape was if it pressed on a panel or pulled on a rope, which then opened the door.

Thorndike would place a cat in the box and then record how long it took for it to escape. In the early trials, the cat would act chaotically until it accidentally discovered how to escape.

But with each trial, it took a little less time for the cat to escape. Over time, a trend emerged.

The graph below depicts the results for cat #12 in box A, based on the data presented in Thorndike’s 1898 publication (p. 15). The graph shows that it took nearly 3 minutes for the cat to escape in the first trial.

A graph showing how the cat learned to escape the puzzle box faster each time in Thorndike's experiment

However, by trial 13, the cat was escaping in less than 10 seconds. Thorndike conducted numerous studies similar to this one. They all revealed the same general trend.

From these experiments, the famous Law of Effect was derived and proceeded to have a tremendous impact on our understanding of human behavior.

Skinner’s Reinforcement Schedules in Operant Conditioning

Skinner created an apparatus called the Skinner Box to conduct extensive studies on reinforcement schedules and how they shaped behavioral patterns.

A Skinner Box contains a lever, a place where food pellets can be dispensed, a wire floor that can be electrified, and a light.

By manipulating how often a food pellet was delivered when the animal (often a rat) pressed on a lever, Skinner identified four main schedules of reinforcement: fixed ratio, variable ratio, fixed interval, and variable interval.

Different schedules of reinforcement result in different patterns of behavior (Ferster & Skinner, 1957).

1. Fixed Ratio Schedule

The fixed ratio (FR) delivers a reward based on a specific number of behaviors occurring. For example, an FR-10 schedule will deliver a reward after 10 instances of the target behavior; regardless of the amount of time that elapses. Fixed ratio schedules produce quick acquisition of the target behavior, followed by a strong and steady pattern. However, when reinforcement stops, the target behavior stops quickly. This is called extinction.

graph of a fixed ratio schedule showing fast behavior acquisition and fast behavior extinction in relation to reinforcement cessation

Read More about Fixed Ratio Schedules Here

2. Variable Ratio Schedule

With the variable ratio (VR) schedule, number of target behaviors required in order for reinforcement to be delivered varies. For example, in a VR-10 schedule, the target behavior may be reinforced after 7 instances, then 11, then 8, then 15. The number of target behaviors required for reinforcement changes, but on average, it will be 10. This VR schedule produces quick acquisition, a high rate of behavior, and no post-reinforcement pause. After reinforcement is terminated, extinction is slow.

graph of a variable ratio schedule showing fast behavior acquisition and slow behavior extinction in relation to reinforcement cessation

Read More about Variable Ratio Schedules Here

3. Fixed Interval Schedule

The fixed interval (FI) schedule delivers reinforcement based on the amount of time that has elapsed. For example, with an FI-7 min. schedule, reinforcement will be delivered for the first target behavior exhibited after seven minutes. The number of target behaviors that occur during the interval is irrelevant. How quickly acquisition and extinction occur depends on the interval length; the shorter the interval, the quicker the behavior will be acquired and the quicker it will be extinguished once reinforcement is terminated.

graph of a fixed interval schedule showing slow behavior acquisition and fast behavior extinction in relation to reinforcement cessation

Read More about Fixed Interval Schedules Here

4. Variable Interval Schedule

The variable interval (VI) schedule is also based on time elapsed, but the interval varies. For instance, with an VI-10 min. schedule, the first interval may be 11 minutes, followed by 4, then 9, and then maybe 10. Although the specific interval changes after each reinforcement has been delivered, it will average 10 minutes. The VI schedule results in a steady rate of behavior, slow acquisition and slow extinction.

graph of a variable interval schedule showing slow behavior acquisition and slow behavior extinction in relation to reinforcement cessation

Operant Conditioning Examples

  • The Bi-weekly Paycheck (Fixed Interval): Being paid every two weeks is predictable and can result in a post-reinforcement pause for a few days after cashing the paycheck.    
  • Landing a Job Interview (Variable Ratio): After applying to 10 jobs, a person gets called in for a job interview. Then, they get called for an interview after just applying for three other jobs. Over an extended period of time, landing an interview almost seems completely random.
  • Sales Commissions (Fixed Ratio): Most people in sales are paid on a commission. Sometimes the commission is paid after each and every sale, and sometimes it’s paid after meeting a quota.  
  • The Yearly Bonus (Fixed Interval): Many top executives are given an end of year bonus, usually based on their performance evaluations for that year.
  • Pop Quizzes (Variable Interval): The pop-quiz means that a teacher may give two or three quizzes one week, but then not give another one for two weeks. The amount of time between quizzes changes.


Classical and operant conditioning are theories of learning that explain how organisms such as human beings learn. By seeing the connections between events or experiencing consequences, we learn about eh environment in which we live.

We learn what predicts the occurrence of another event or stimulus, or we learn about which behaviors we engage will be rewarded or punished.

Classical conditioning explains how a person can develop a fear of certain objects, and how that fear can be treated. A therapist will teach a client how to relax whenever seeing that feared stimulus. Over a period of time, the client will no longer feel anxiety when seeing that stimulus.

Operant conditioning helps managers and teachers shape the behavior of their staff or students. By reinforcing certain behaviors at certain times, those behaviors will become stronger and more frequent.


Ferster, C. B., & Skinner, B. F. (1957). Schedules of reinforcement. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts.

Gray, P. (2007). Psychology (6th ed.). Worth Publishers, NY.

Madden, G. J. (2012). APA Handbook of Behavior Analysis (APA Handbooks in Psychology). New York: ABA.

Skinner, B. F. (1965). Science and human behavior. New York: Free Press.Thorndike, E. L. (1898). Animal intelligence: An experimental study of the associative processes in animals. The Psychological Review: Monograph Supplements, 2(4), i.

Thorndike, E. L. (1905). The elements of psychology. New York: A. G. Seiler.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20(2), 158-177.

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Dr. Cornell has worked in education for more than 20 years. His work has involved designing teacher certification for Trinity College in London and in-service training for state governments in the United States. He has trained kindergarten teachers in 8 countries and helped businessmen and women open baby centers and kindergartens in 3 countries.

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This article was peer-reviewed and edited by Chris Drew (PhD). The review process on Helpful Professor involves having a PhD level expert fact check, edit, and contribute to articles. Reviewers ensure all content reflects expert academic consensus and is backed up with reference to academic studies. Dr. Drew has published over 20 academic articles in scholarly journals. He is the former editor of the Journal of Learning Development in Higher Education and holds a PhD in Education from ACU.

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