Classical and Operant Conditioning Study Guide

Student studying conditioning
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Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are central to behaviorism but students often get confused about the differences between the two. Use this study guide to familiarize yourself with some of the major topics related to classical and operant conditioning including key terminology and important thinkers.

What Is Behaviorism?

First things first, it is important to understand exactly what behavior is and what it focuses on.

Behavioral psychology is one of the major subjects studied in almost every introductory psychology course. The behaviorist influence was stronger during the middle half of the 20th century than it is today, but behavioral concepts and theories remain important in fields such as education and psychotherapy.

The central idea of behaviorism is that all actions are acquired through conditioning processes. Start your exploration of this topic by reading this introductory article that introduces many of the major themes and issues: What Is Behaviorism?

Important Thinkers in Behavioral Psychology

Now that you have gotten a general idea of what behavioral psychology is all about, let's turn our focus to some of the key people who have shaped the history and practice of behaviorism. By learning more about their lives and works, you will gain a better understanding of the influence they had on behaviorism.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a process that involves creating an association between a naturally existing stimulus and a previously neutral one. Sounds confusing, but let's break it down:

Imagine a dog that salivates when it sees food.

The food is the naturally occurring stimulus. If you started to ring a bell every time you presented the dog with food, an association would be formed between the food and the bell. Eventually the bell alone, a.k.a. the conditioned stimulus, would come to evoke the salivation response. Learn more about the topic in greater detail by exploring this introduction to classical conditioning and some of the major principles of classical conditioning.

Once you have read those articles, learn more about how Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov first discovered classical conditioning as well as the famous Little Albert experiment, which demonstrated the powerful effects of conditioning.

Operant Conditioning

Operant conditioning utilizes reinforcement and punishment to create associations between behaviors and the consequences for those behaviors. For example, imagine that a schoolteacher punishes a student for talking out of turn by not letting the student go outside for recess. As a result, the student forms an association between the behavior (talking out of turn) and the consequence (not being able to go outside for recess).

As a result, the problematic behavior decreases.

A number of factors can influence how quickly a response is learned and the strength of the response. Brush up on your knowledge of the topic by first reading this introduction to operant conditioning before moving on to an overview of the schedules of reinforcement.

Understanding the Differences Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

For many students, remembering what makes classical conditioning and operant conditioning different can be a real challenge. I once heard a college professor tell a class full of undergraduates that she had not truly understood the difference between the two until her second year of graduate school.

Fortunately, there are some handy tricks for remembering and identifying each type of conditioning process. First, remember that classical conditioning involves a neutral stimulus that naturally and automatically triggers a response while operant conditioning requires the use of reinforcement or punishment.

Learn more in this overview of the differences between classical and operant conditioning.

Key Terms and Definitions

The following are a few of the key terms that you should know and understand:

Study Questions

1. What effect do schedules of reinforcement have on acquiring a new behavior?

2. What are reinforcement and punishment? How do they differ?

3. What are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement?

4. What are positive punishment and negative punishment?

5. People often confuse punishment with negative reinforcement. How are they different?

6. What are the differences between classical and operant conditioning?

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