Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Main Difference – Classical vs Operant Conditioning

Classical and Operant conditioning are two theories in psychology which describe acquired behavioral patterns of an organism. These two studies share numerous similar principals and procedures along with few differences including the different processes which they have been initially gained by. However, it is important to identify the line of demarcation between these two terms. The main difference between classical and operant conditioning is that classical conditioning is a process of learning which alters an individual’s behavior in relation to various internal or external stimuli whereas operant conditioning is a type of learning which is based on the behavioral patterns that take place in response to numerous rewards and outcomes.

This article will explain in detail,

1. What is Operant Conditioning – BF Skinner Theory, Basic Principle, Key Concepts and Outcome

2. What is Classical Conditioning – Ivan Pavlov Theory, Basic Principle, and Outcome

3. Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning - Classical vs. Operant Conditioning Comparison Summary

What is Operant Conditioning

Introduced by the behaviorist B.F. Skinner, Operant conditioning is defined as a way of learning which takes place through awarding rewards and punishments for different behavioral patterns. The main basic principle here is the association between an individual’s behavior and the response or consequence to that particular behavior.

For example, imagine a rat placed in a cage with contains two buttons. If the rat presses the blue button, it will receive a food pellet as a reward, but if it presses the red button, a mild electric shock will be generated. As a result of this whole scenario, the rat will always try to avoid the red button and will press the blue button.

The two key concepts of this theory of operant conditioning include reinforcements and punishments.

Reinforcement is defined as any action which strengthens or raises the intensity of the consequent behavior it is followed by. Positive reinforcements are the favorable events (outcomes) which follow a certain behavior. In cases with regards to positive reinforcement, the responsive action is definitely strengthened by praise or a reward. Negative reinforcements take place with the removal of an unfavorable outcome following a certain behavior. In such scenarios, a response is strengthened by taking off something which is known to be unpleasant.

In both of these types of reinforcement, the behavior is known to be strengthened.

Punishment is defined as the action which is provided in response to an adverse event or outcome which results in a decrease or lowering of the behavior it is followed by. The two main types of punishment include Positive punishment which involves the presentation of an unfavorable action which weakens the response to it and Negative punishment or punishment by removal, which takes place when a favorable outcome is taken off after a certain behavior.

In both positive and negative types of punishment, the behavior is known to be weakened.

Main Difference - Classical vs Operant Conditioning

What is Classical Conditioning

Introduced by the Russian psychologist Ivan Pavlov, Classical conditioning is defined as a category of learning which explains various acquired patterns of behaviorism. It can also be described as a process of learning which occurs through various associations between a stimulus from the environment and a stimulus which develops intrinsically.

As far as the term ‘Behaviorism’ is concerned, it is based on several assumptions. Some of these assumptions state that every process of learning takes place through various links with the environment, environment shapes up an individual’s behavior and internally built up mental states like emotions, thoughts and feelings are extremely useless in explaining behavior.

Based on the above assumptions, Pavlov has introduced the classical conditioning theory which involves the initiation of a neutral signal in order to build up a naturally occurring reflex. In his world famous experiments carried out with dogs, the neutral signal was supposed to be the tone of a sound and the naturally occurring reflex was salivation as a response to food. He confirmed that the simple association between neutral stimuli and stimulus from the environment (food) enable the tone of the sound to initiate the salivation as a response.

More importantly, various clinical applications of this theory are used in day to day life. For example, dog trainers use those basic techniques to support people in training their pets and in medical practice, psychiatrists use these basic principles in treating various phobias or anxiety conditions.Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

Difference Between Classical and Operant Conditioning


Classical Conditioning: Classical conditioning, defined as a process of learning, was found by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in early 1900s.

Operant Conditioning: Operant Conditioning was found later on by B.F. Skinner in 1938.


Classical Conditioning: Pavlov’s world famous dog experiment is the first scenario which helped to establish the classical conditioning theory.

Operant Conditioning: Skinner’s rat box experiment became the base for the introduction of operant conditioning theory with its concepts.

Basic Principle

Classical Conditioning: This theory correlates with the process of learning which alters an individual’s behavior in relation to various internal or external stimuli.

Operant Conditioning: Operant conditioning is described as a type of learning which is based on the behavioral patterns, taken place in response to numerous rewards and outcomes.


Classical Conditioning: Classical conditioning is mainly based on involuntary reflexive behavior.

Operant Conditioning: Operant conditioning theory involves voluntary behavioral outcomes.


Classical Conditioning: Classical Conditioning results in behaviors which pair with involuntary stimuli where the unconditioned response, later on, become a conditioned response with time.

Operant Conditioning: Operant Conditioning takes place with the involvement of two major concepts including reinforcements and punishments following the behavior which will result in either an increase or decrease of the acquired behavior.

Image Courtesy:

“Classical vs operant conditioning” by By Perey – Own work (CC BY-SA 4.0) via Commons Wikimedia

“Operant conditioning diagram” by  Curtis Neveu – using Adobe illustrator (CC BY-SA 3.0) via Commons Wikimedia

About the Author: Embogama

Embogama is a passionate freelance writer for several years. Her areas of interest include general medicine, clinical medicine, health and fitness, Ayurveda medicine, psychology, counseling and piano music