Classical and Operant Conditioning – Relevant in real life?

Even if you are a beginner in the field of Psychology, chances are higher that probably you have heard the name of Pavlov and his famous dogs. A Russian scientist Pavlov is famous for his experiments in classical conditioning by doing extensive research on dogs. Today’s article is about classical and operant conditioning. We will explore all the terms and theories related to this topic and will also discuss its impact on general situations.

So, let’s start with understanding the conditioning.

Conditioning & its types:

In terms of behavioral psychology, conditioning is a reaction to a situation, object, or even by an animal or a person. More professionally it is a response against a stimulus.

Moreover, it is a way of learning that associates behavior or response of a person or animal with some sort of stimulus or trigger. By experimenting with conditioning in several ways, scientists have given major theories about learning.

Conditioning has two types. These include Classical and Operant conditioning.

What is Classical Conditioning?

Generally, classical conditioning is considered as the basic form of associative learning. Classical conditioning involves reflexive or automatic responses rather than voluntary behavior. The expecting responses must appear unconsciously such as nausea, pupil dilation, salivation, high or low heart rate, or even the reflexive motor responses.

Moreover, in classical conditioning, it is in need to place a neutral stimulus just before the occurrence of automatic stimulus and this eventually turns into a learned response to the previously neutral stimulus.

Pavlov experiment for classical conditioning:

Pavlov presented food to a dog just after ringing a bell or while shining light in the dark. Salivation of dog was an automatic response when the dog placed food in its mouth. After the pairing of food presenting with the bell or light repeatedly, the dog started salvation just after hearing the bell or seeing the light. It means the dog conditionally associated the previously neutral stimulus with its salvation response.

Stages of classical conditioning:

There are three basic stages of classical conditioning:

Before Conditioning:

In this stage, the conditioned stimulus (CS) and unconditioned stimulus (UCS) have no connection. UCS naturally elicits an unconditioned response.


When a person sits first time in an airplane they may become flight phobic, this is UCS. This conditional stimulus is a neutral stimulus (NS) right now. It has not been conditioned yet and it has to produce response yet.

During Conditioning:

During the conditioning stage, the NS and UCS get paired and lead to the previously neutral stimulus and convert into a CS. The UCS and CS pair up several times to reinforce the association between these two stimuli. Still, it is not necessary every time.


If that individual sucks a hard candy (CS) right before takeoff (UCS), maybe that person could learn to associate hard candy (CS) with overcoming the feelings of ill (CR).

After Conditioning:

Once the association of UCS and CS establishes, CS elicits the CR. The person learns to relate a particular response along with the previously neutral stimulus. So, the person who gets sick due to flight fear finds that sucking hard candy (CS) makes them feel ill (CR) although the hard candy had nothing to do with the person getting scared and anxious on a flight.

Advance principles of Classical Conditioning:

Several other principles explain the working of classical conditioning.


When the conditional stimulus and unconditional stimulus no longer associate with each other, the conditioned response decreases or completely disappears. As the dog started salvation in response to the several attempts of ringing bell or seeing light before serving food. But if the bell rings without food or light has shown without food, gradually salvation starts to decrease and eventually stops.

Impulsive Recovery:

The conditioned response may not vanish forever, even after extinction. Response reemerges sometimes with spontaneous recovery. Let suppose after the vanishing of the dog’s salvation condition as a response to a bell or light, for a sufficient period bell isn’t sounded or light isn’t seen. After that break, if the bell sounds again or light is seen – conditioned response will spontaneously recover again. But in case of no pairing between unconditioned and conditioned stimuli the recovery won’t last for long and vanishing/extinction will appear again.

Generalization of Stimulus:

When the stimulus conditions with a particular response, Stimulus generalization appears. This means, if the salvation of the dog is conditioned to the ringing of the bell, the dog will salivate to every kind of bell tone unless the tone is very different from the conditioned stimulus.

Discrimination of Stimulus:

The generalization of a stimulus often does not last. As time passes discrimination of stimulus starts and stimuli are differentiated. If the dog continues to hear different bell sounds, the passage of time dog will start differentiating between various bell tones and its salvation will be restricted to only conditioned tone or with the tone almost similar to it.

Classical conditioning & real world:

This type of conditioning is also applicable in the real-world and many examples of this conditioning can be observed.

  • Classical conditioning technique can be used in classrooms: When a teacher couple a difficult subject that makes students puzzled or nervous. In this situation, using an effective way of teaching and a positive environment, the students will learn to feel relaxed and positive about that subject.
  • Drug addiction: In various circumstances when drugs become part of life, the user requires more of that drug to get the same result. We can call this situation as tolerance.
  • Encountering with phobia and anxiety: Classical conditioning is also helpful in psychological treatments of depression, anxiety, and phobias like fear of reptiles (herpetophobia). The therapist might show the images of different reptiles repeatedly to the phobic patient while performing relaxation techniques to form a connection between reptiles and relaxation.

Hope after this detailed explanation many of your doubts and confusion regarding classical conditioning are resolved. Let’s move towards operant conditioning.

What is Operant Conditioning?

To alter behavior when the consequences that come after that behavior will vary, it is operant conditioning. Operant conditioning is also termed as instrumental conditioning. It is a learning behavior in animals and humans to behave in a particular way to avoid punishment and obtain the reward. Operant conditioning is different from classical conditioning and it is respondent or Pavlovian conditioning and in this external stimuli triggers involuntary behavior.

Shaping a behavior:

Shaping is the establishment of behavior that is not presently learned and performed by an individual. It is the successive approximation of a step by step procedure in which different behaviors are reinforced until the ultimate behavior is achieved. It is a long and complicated process.

Skinner’s explanation of operant conditioning theory of learning:

B.F. Skinner believed that internal thoughts and motives are not essential to explain behavior, but the observable or external causes are responsible for a particular behavior. According to Skinner operant conditioning is an active behavior that is dependent upon the environment to generate consequences. Skinner was so much influenced by the ‘’law of effects’’ proposed by Edward Thorndike and he proposed his theory keeping this law in mind.

‘’Skinner Box’’ Experiment:

Skinner designed a specific box for his experiments’ on rats and named it as ‘’Skinner Box’’. Skinner placed a hungry rat inside this box. He observed that in the beginning rat was not active inside the box, but after some time it adopted the environment of that box and began to search around for food. Eventually, the rat located a lever inside the box and upon pressing this lever rat got food. After filling its hunger rat started to whirl around the box, but feeling hungry again, it pressed the lever.

This whole phenomenon repeated several times and after some initial struggles mouse becomes used to getting food by pressing the lever and finally conditioning was considered to be completed. In this experiment pressing the lever is the operant behavior or response and food is the reward present inside the chamber for the rat.

Positive & negative reinforcement and Skinner’s experiment:

A hungry rat was served with food every time after pressing the lever. This was positive reinforcement. To explain the negative reinforcement Skinner performed another experiment in which he placed the rat in a chamber with an unpleasant electric current. Because of experiencing the discomfort in the chamber rat immediately started moving around the box desperately. On accidental contact with the lever, the unpleasant flow of current quickly stopped.

After a few attempts, the rat becomes smart enough to directly push the lever to stop that current and comforts itself. In this experiment, negative reinforcement was the electric current and pressing the lever to get comfort was the operant response and reward was the stop of electric current.

Principles of Operant Conditioning:

Working with classical and operant conditioning depends upon their basic principles. The principles of operant conditioning are:


Reinforcement is a stimulus that increases the probability of the response. It increases the frequency of an operant. Positive reinforcers include approval, appreciation, and food while the negative reinforcers include pain, anxiety, and disapproval. These reinforcers are classified as primary and secondary reinforcers.

We can link primary reinforcers to the survival of a living organism such as water, food, pain, and comfort. Grades, praise, status, money, and prestige are secondary reinforcers. These are the features acquired by the environment through experiences.


The opposite of reinforcement is the punishment it is a phenomenon in which an organism gets a stimulus after responding in a particular way. Punishment discourages the individuals to repeat the same behavior. There are two types of punishments.

Positive punishment decreases the repetition of a certain behavior like spanking a child for stealing. Negative punishment removes certain good things from an individual’s life like stopping a child from asking too many questions.


The removal of reinforcement causes the extinction of the learned response. This concept is similar to classical and operant conditioning.

Induction & Discrimination

We can call the similar reaction/response of an organism to similar stimuli the induction or generalization. Similarly, a similar response for different stimulus is what we call discrimination.

Quick Recovery

When an organism performs the same action after a sufficient time gap, then it is spontaneous recovery.

Operant conditioning & real world:

Various examples of operant conditioning surrounds us. All of our work or perform certain activities only to get the reward of any kind or to avoid the punishment. From a child who completes her homework to get a reward from their parents and teachers to an employee or business person who finishes their work or earns profit to receive praise, promotion, or success.

  • After performing in your college program you receive applause and appreciation from the audience. This positive reinforcement motivates you to perform even better in the future to get more encouragement.
  • If a girl performs not well in her exams and gets C-grade, her parents stop her from having picnics and parties with her friends. This negative punishment results positively and the girl works hard to get better grades.
  • Providing a treat or pat on the head to praise your pet when they follow your instructions is a positive reinforcement that encourages the pet to understand your commands and encourages also to obey more commands in the future.
  • Acting out, screaming, tantrum, and shouting are some of the actions that a child shows to manipulate or get the attention of their parents, these are negative reinforcement. If the parent behaves according to the wants of the child, the child stops her action.


Classical and operant conditioning are all different. The focus of classical conditioning is on automatic behaviors and involuntary actions while the operant conditioning focuses on punishment and reinforcement after a particular behavior.

The classical condition and operant condition theories are equally useful for humans and animals. Both of the theories help produce positive behaviors and in dealing with various psychological issues like fears and phobias. Although, both the classical and operant conditioning have their strengths and weaknesses these play a significant role in studying behaviors and aid practical applications to understand the human race more effectively.

What’s your opinion about the classical and operant condition theories and their outcomes? Please let us know about your thoughts in the comments section below. Do you think that dependent personality disorder has any connections with the classical and operant conditioning in anyway?

Log Kya Kahein Gay: Log Kya Kahein Gay provides a platform to discuss ideas and opinions about the culture and social ethics of our society.
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