The 6 differences between classical and operant conditioning

When it comes to behaviorism, two terms inevitably come to mind: classical conditioning and operant conditioning.

Many people confuse these ideas, which are sometimes considered to be virtually identical. Of course they are not and that’s why we will explore the differences between classical and operant conditioning, not without having first seen in detail what each is referring to.

    How to distinguish classical conditioning from operant conditioning?

    Among the best-known schools of thought in psychology is behaviorism, which takes learning as its main object of study and the ground for its theories. Two of the main forms of associative learning are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. two learning modes that are sometimes confused when approached in the form of an inseparable pair.

    The more basic of the two is the classic, which is implicit associative learning in which two stimuli are associated, an unconditional stimulus and a conditioning. The operand, first described by psychologist E. Thorndike in the early 20th century and further developed by radical behaviorist BF Skinner, the individual learns to associate a response with a stimulus important to him or her.

    What is classic conditioning?

    The history of the discovery of classical conditioning is well known. It happened at the beginning of the 20th century in Tsarist Russia. A physiologist named Ivan Pavlov, of the objectivist-reflexology tradition, was researching salivation in animals, wanting to discover its function and composition. He was experimenting with dogs and one day he noticed that dogs started salivating before they even saw the food. How could dogs know food was approaching without seeing it?

    Pavlov noticed that the dogs behaved this way when they heard his footsteps. The dogs had associated the noise Pavlov made as he approached with food, so they started salivating before they even saw her. It was enough to hear the footsteps of the Russian scientist to know that they would soon receive a delicious meal. This is how Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning, also known as associative learning, and was awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1904.

    The main concepts of classical conditioning son:

    • Unconditional Stimulus (IE): Stimulus intense enough to produce a response. No prior experience required by the agency to issue a response.
    • Unconditional Response (IR): is the response triggered by the unconditional stimulus.
    • Neutral stimulus (EN): is a stimulus that has no effect on behavior.
    • Conditional Stimulus (CE): After a repeated association between IS and EN, the latter acquires the properties of the former and elicits a response similar to RI.
    • Conditional Response (CR): is the response that occurs to the AC, being essentially RI caused by what was once an EN but is now an AC.

    Principles of classical conditioning

    An unconditional stimulus (IE) triggers an unconditional response (IR). If a neutral stimulus (EN) is added to this IE, after several joint presentations of the two stimuli, the EN will become a conditioned stimulus (CE), that is, without the need for the IE, it will cause the conditional response (CR) is issued.

    In the case of Pavlov’s dogs, IS would be food and RI would be salivation. The EN / EC would be the sound of Pavlov’s footsteps which, accompanied by the presentation of the food, would make the dogs associate the two stimuli and the moment would come when it would be enough to hear these footsteps for the dogs to come out (RC), no need to see food.

    Classical conditioning explains the acquisition of primary behaviors such as fear of pain, hunger at the sight of food, salivation at the sight of a lemon …

    This mechanism explains the acquisition of primary behaviors such as fear of pain, hunger, etc. Its use allows the induction of alarm reactions (cardiac acceleration, activation of the nervous system, etc.), but it is inadequate to build articulate behaviors, such as hazard elimination and risk prevention.

      What is operative conditioning?

      Classical conditioning is what causes an organism to associate a response to a stimulus, initially neutral and then conditioned.. However, this type of conditioning is very basic and primitive, and its main limitation is that the emitted response itself was not new, but was already present before being conditioned to a given stimulus.

      Operative or instrumental conditioning, on the other hand, is the situation in which the body, when adopting a new behavior, receives a different stimulus as a result. This type of learning refers to the process by which the frequency of a behavior changes or is altered due to the consequences of that behavior. Consequences are always the result of a response to a specific stimulus.

      A consequence can be positive (reward) or negative (punishment) for the body performing the response. If the consequences are positive, the probability of repeating the behavior that caused them will increase, while if they are negative, this probability will be reduced. Reinforcement is used to induce repetition of the desired behavior, while punishment is used to prevent or extinguish unwanted behavior.

      Among the fundamental concepts of operative conditioning we have:

      • Reinforcement: Any event that increases the likelihood that a certain behavior will occur. It can be positive or negative. Positive reinforcement involves something that the body performing the behavior likes, while negative reinforcement will involve something that it does not like.
      • Punishment: refers to any procedure used to eliminate a certain behavior. It can be positive or negative. We say that a punishment is negative when something he does not like is provided to the experimental subject, whereas it is negative when something he does not like is taken away.
      • Extinction: is the reduction in the subject’s frequency of response when it ceases to be reinforced or is punished.
      • Acquisition: it is the increase in the frequency of a behavioral pattern, generally when it is reinforced.

      Principles of packaging operation

      The most important figure in terms of operative conditioning is that of BF Skinner. In fact, the experiences of this behavioral psychologist are so important that one of the main elements used to apply operant conditioning is called the Skinner box.

      In this box, Skinner put mice free to roam at random. At one point, the rodent activated a lever designed to drop the food. In no time, the mice began to repeat this behavior over and over again, learning that if they pressed the lever they would get food, their reinforcement. This type of learning has been called Skinner Operant because the body operates on the environment knowing that it will have some consequence.

      Thus, in this specific case of operative conditioning we have an animal which, by accidentally pressing the lever, receives food (positive reinforcement). As you push that lever more and more, you associate that action with receiving something you love., and that’s why he won’t stop doing it.

        Main differences between classical and operant conditioning

        Now that we have a better understanding of what classical conditioning and operant conditioning are, let’s take a look at their main differences:

        1. Definition

        Classical conditioning is a type of learning that involves the association between two stimuli, one of which indicates the onset of the other.

        However, operant conditioning implies that living organisms learn to behave in a particular way due to the consequences which caused some action performed by them in the past.

        2. Packaging process

        In the classic, the conditioning process occurs when the experimental organism combines two stimuli, one that elicits an involuntary response and the other that did not cause anything originally. After being frequently exposed to both, it ends up exhibiting involuntary behavior in the face of a stimulus that was previously neutral.

        On the other hand, in operative conditioning, the behavior of the organism will change according to the consequences of this same behavior.

          3. Behaviors involved

          Classic conditioning is based on involuntary or reflex behaviors as physiological and emotional responses of the body. Also in emotions, thoughts and feelings.

          In the case of operative conditioning, it relies on voluntary behavior, active actions of the body which performs a behavior to achieve a consequence later.

            4. Control of conditioned responses

            In classical conditioning, the body’s responses are under the control of the stimulus, while experimental control of responses is exercised by the experimental organism.

            5. Definition of the stimulus

            In classical conditioning, we speak of conditioned and unconditioned stimulus. In the operative, the conditioned stimulus is not defined, but we speak of operative response, reinforcement, punishment, extinction and the acquisition of a particular behavior.

              6. Role of organizations

              The organism plays a passive role in classical conditioning, with the appearance of the unconditional stimulus under the control of the researcher.

              On the contrary, in the operation the appearance of the reinforcement is under the control of the organism, who takes an active role in performing a certain behavior that is supposed to have some sort of consequence.

              Bibliographical references

              • Pérez, AM, & Cruz, JE (2003). Classic conditioning concepts in fundamental and applied fields. Interdisciplinary, 20 (2), 205-227.
              • Reynolds, GS (1973). Compendium of operative conditioning. Behavioral Science Editorial.
              • Sánchez, P., Ortega, N. and Casa Rivas, L. (2008). Conceptual bases of classical conditioning: techniques, variables and procedures.
              • Sarason, IG and Sarason, BR (2006). Psychopathology: Abnormal Psychology: The Problem of Maladaptive Behavior (10th ed.). Pearson Education.

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