The most obvious point of difference between operant and classical conditioning revolves around when the stimulus is applied, before or after the response. But there do exist other points too that need to be taken into consideration.
What is Learning?
In psychology, learning is the process that brings about a behavioral change resulting from experience.
In behavioral psychology, we often come across two theories: the operant conditioning theory and the classical conditioning theory. Both theories stress on learning; not the learning that you associate with a classroom, but learning as defined in psychology. Both shed light on various facets of human and non-human behavior, and seek to answer how humans and non-humans react to stimuli. Both have been extensively used to treat phobias, and at times, for the treatment of depression and anxiety.
Despite these similarities, the two are different at many levels …
Classical Conditioning Vs. Operant Conditioning
Classical conditioning was discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. It was one of those great accidental discoveries, because Pavlov was actually working on the digestive patterns in dogs, when he noticed that his dog would begin to salivate the moment his lab assistant―who served him food―entered the room. In order to study this unusual behavior, Pavlov carried out his now-famous experiment, and eventually put forth empirical evidence of classical conditioning.
Trivia: In 1920, the duo of John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner carried out the Little Albert experiment, to prove that classical conditioning applied to humans as well.
Operant conditioning was discovered by Polish neurophysiologist Jerzy Konorski. Back then, he called it type II conditioned reflexes or secondary conditioned reflexes. It was B.F. Skinner who eventually popularized the concept, and even coined the term ‘operant conditioning’. That explains why he is called the Father of Operant Conditioning. If Pavlov had his dog, Skinner had his rats and the Operant Conditioning Chamber, i.e., the Skinner Box.
Most Popular Experiments
In dogs, the tendency to salivate when they see food is a hard-wired reflex. They don’t learn it. In other words, salivation is the unconditioned response to food, which is unconditioned stimulus. In the course of his study on a dog’s digestive pattern, Pavlov realized that anything the dog associated with food would trigger salivation (unconditioned response), including his lab assistant who served the dog food. He introduced a neutral stimulus to the environment in the form of a bell. Whenever the dog was served food, Pavlov would ring a bell. Eventually, the dog began to associate the bell with food, such that every time he heard the bell, he started to salivate; even when there was no food around.
Skinner carried out experiments on rats. He would place them in the Skinner Box, which was equipped with a lever, stimulus light, and a feeding tube. The lever was connected to the feeding tube in such a manner, that whenever the rat would press the lever, it would release food. Eventually, from experience, the rat learned to associate the lever with food. Also, the reinforcement part, i.e., the part where the rat got its food, only occurred when the stimulus light was on. Soon enough, the rat learned this difference, and began pressing the lever on fewer occasions when the light was not on.
Classical conditioning pairs a previously neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus, so the subject learns to associate two different stimuli. In Pavlov’s experiment, the sight of food was the unconditioned stimulus, while the bell was the previously neutral stimulus. Operant conditioning, on the other hand, relies on reinforcement or punishment to increase or decrease behavior. In the Skinner Box experiment, the availability of food was the reinforcement, while the act of pressing the lever, the desired consequence.
In classical conditioning, an existing behavior is shaped by associating it with a new stimulus. In contrast, in operant conditioning, the likelihood of a new desired behavior is increased or decreased by applying reinforcing stimulus, which is like an unconditioned stimulus. In classical conditioning, the subject associates an involuntary response and a stimulus. As opposed to this, in operant conditioning, the subject associates a voluntary behavior and a consequence.
In classical conditioning, the experiences from which the subject learns occur before a response. In operant conditioning, on the other hand, the experiences from which the subject learns occur after a response. There is more to operant conditioning. For instance, reinforcement after the behavior increases the behavior, while punishment after the behavior decreases it. Within reinforcement, there are two types: positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement.
When you leave for office early, you realize that there is less traffic. So you decide to leave early every day to avoid heavy traffic, which, in this case, is undesired consequence. In a school, when the student who tops the class is praised by the teacher, it prompts all students to work hard. In this case, praise is the desired consequence. In the first case, undesired consequence is removed, so it is negative reinforcement. In the second case, desired consequence is added, so it is positive reinforcement. Besides these, there is the case of punishment. An apt example will be when a child is grounded for not performing well in a test, so he makes it a point to work hard and perform well in the next test.
As for classical conditioning, one of the best examples will be static electricity shock. When you touch a door handle to open the door, you get an electric shock. You move your hand back in a split second; courtesy, automatic reflex. When this happens a couple of time, you start associating the door handle with static electricity, and out of fear that you might get a shock again, you show reluctance to directly touch the handle.
Such behavioral theories play an important role in the life of animals, as they do in our lives. In dog training, for instance, trainers resort to operant conditioning and classical conditioning to inculcate good behavior such as obedience and potty training, and modify bad behavior such sitting on the couch, boisterousness, etc.