Classical and Operant Conditioning Examples

Emily Shorey, Lisa Roundy, Lesley Chapel
  • Author
    Emily Shorey

    Emily Shorey has taught online psychology and social work courses for high school and college students for the past ten years. She earned her Bachelor of Science in psychology at Columbia International University and her Master of Social Work at Boston College. She has practiced social work both in the United States and in India.

  • Instructor
    Lisa Roundy

    Lisa has taught at all levels from kindergarten to college and has a master's degree in human relations.

  • Expert Contributor
    Lesley Chapel

    Lesley has taught American and World History at the university level for the past seven years. She has a Master's degree in History.

Understand classical vs operant conditioning. See classical conditioning examples, operant conditioning examples and phenomena associated with these types of conditioning. Updated: 07/10/2021

Classical vs. Operant Conditioning

Behavioral psychology is the study of observable behaviors and seeks to understand how behaviors are shaped or learned. The focus of behaviorism is on the external and environmental factors that modify behavior, rather than on internal cognitive processes. Two significant theories of behavioral learning are classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning focuses on learned associations between stimuli and involuntary responses, while operant conditioning looks at the modifying of voluntary behaviors through reinforcements and punishments.

Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning, alternatively called respondent conditioning or Pavlovian conditioning, was developed by Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist and researcher. He established the theory as an explanation of his observations when he researched the salivation of dogs in the 1890s. Pavlov noticed that the dogs began to salivate in response to a ringing bell or the sound of footsteps if they immediately preceded the presentation of food. If the sound of a bell was rung before the food often enough, then the dogs would eventually salivate in response to the bell, even if the food was never presented.

Ivan Pavlov, 1849-1936

Ivan Pavlov demonstrated classical conditioning examples

The theory of classical conditioning proposes that a neutral stimulus (such as the bell ringing) can become a conditioned stimulus and evoke a conditioned response (such as salivation in the case of Pavlov's dogs).

Before conditioning, a neutral stimulus causes no response. On the other hand, an unconditioned stimulus naturally elicits an unconditioned response . During the conditioning, a neutral stimulus is paired with an unconditioned stimulus. After conditioning, the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus and elicits a conditioned response.

The process of classical conditioning is outlined below:

Before conditioning The neutral stimulus (bell ringing) produces no response. The unconditioned stimulus (food) produces the unconditioned response (salivation).
During conditioning The neutral stimulus (bell ringing) is presented right before the unconditioned stimulus (food) and an unconditioned response (salivation) follows.
After conditioning The conditioned stimulus (bell ringing) produces the conditioned response (salivation).

Sometimes, a powerful one-time pairing of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus can establish a new and immediate association. An example of this would be a terrifying event that evokes a fear response and leads to a long-term phobia. If a child gets scratched by a cat, they may develop a phobia of cats due to that one experience. The cat (neutral stimulus) is paired with the scratching (unconditioned stimulus) and leads to the response of drawing back from the cat (unconditioned response). Cats become the new conditioned stimulus that leads to a conditioned fear response.

Another example of this would be taste aversion. When a person eats food and then becomes nauseous they may develop a lasting aversion to the food. In this case, the neutral stimulus of the food is paired with the unconditioned stimulus of nausea.

Operant Conditioning

B. F. Skinner, a well-known American behaviorist and psychologist, devised the term operant conditioning to explain how behaviors are shaped and modified by consequences. Skinner conducted extensive experiments with both rats and pigeons to test his theories. Operant conditioning, sometimes called instrumental learning, suggests that consequences play a major role in the shaping of future behaviors. These consequences can either increase or decrease a particular behavior, depending on whether the result of the behavior is pleasant or unpleasant. Reinforcements serve to strengthen a behavior and can do this either by adding something pleasant or removing something unpleasant. On the other hand, punishments weaken a behavior by adding something unpleasant or removing something pleasant.

  • Positive reinforcements: Add something desirable to increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.
  • Negative reinforcements: Remove something undesirable to increase the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.
  • Positive punishments: Add something undesirable to decrease the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.
  • Negative punishments: Remove something desirable to decrease the likelihood that the behavior will be repeated.

The way that operant conditioning works can be seen in Skinner's experiments with rats and pigeons in the Skinner box. For example, he trained rats to push a lever by giving and removing both food and an electric current. Giving food was a positive reinforcement, turning off the electric current was a negative reinforcement, turning on the electric current was a positive punishment, and taking away food was a negative punishment.

A box used to train pigeons

Operant conditioning examples include this training box for pigeons

Difference Between Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

While both classical conditioning and operant conditioning involve learned associations and shaping of behaviors, there are some key differences between the two. Classical conditioning establishes associations between stimuli and responses, whereas operant conditioning shapes behavior through the association of behaviors and their consequences. Classical conditioning involves involuntary responses, but operant conditioning involves voluntary behaviors. Finally, classical conditioning focuses more on what happens before a response, while the focus of operant conditioning is what follows a behavior.

To understand the difference between the two types of conditioning, consider the simple example of a child having screen time each day. If the child watches their favorite show every afternoon and watching the show is preceded by a parent picking up the remote, the child may begin to jump up and down in excitement when the remote is picked up. This is an example of classical conditioning because the child has learned to associate the neutral stimulus of the remote being picked up with the unconditioned stimulus of watching a favorite show. The focus is on what happens before the response.

On the other hand, the child may be allowed to watch their favorite show only if they have completed their chores. So watching the show becomes a positive reinforcement for the behavior of completing chores. This is an example of operant conditioning because the learned association is between a behavior and its consequences. The focus is on what happens after the behavior.

How Are Behaviors Learned?

Have you ever wondered how our behaviors are learned? Meet Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, two behavioral psychologists who pioneered the theories of classical and operant conditioning, respectively. Let's examine how the theories they studied help us understand the way we learn.

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Classical Conditioning

First, let's visit Mr. Pavlov. He studied what is called classical conditioning. You'll sometimes also hear this referred to as respondent conditioning. In classical conditioning, learning refers to involuntary responses that result from experiences that occur before a response.

Classical conditioning occurs when you learn to associate two different stimuli. No behavior is involved. The first stimulus that you will encounter is called the unconditioned stimulus. An unconditioned stimulus produces a response without any previous learning. This response is called an unconditioned response.

For an example of a stimulus that evokes an unconditioned response, let's imagine a scenario of waiting in line to ride a rollercoaster that you don't want to ride. You've agreed to ride with your friends, but the sounds of the roaring train and screams of the passengers create involuntary fear responses; it causes you to experience an elevated heart rate, for example. This is a natural response, it is not learned, and it happens automatically. The unconditioned stimulus in this example are the sights and sounds of the rollercoaster you don't want to ride, and the elevated heart rate is the unconditioned response.

In classical conditioning, you now add a neutral stimulus to the experience. It is called a neutral stimulus because it is not associated with the unconditioned response. Thinking of our example of waiting to ride a rollercoaster, imagine that a particular song is playing over and over while you wait. The song will be the neutral stimulus. When the song is paired with the fear of getting on the rollercoaster, your heart rate still increases because of the fear of riding.

However, after repeated pairing of that song with the anxiety of getting on the ride, your brain will start to think, 'I hear that song, so something scary must be going to happen soon!' Because of this, you will experience an increased heart rate when you hear that song. Your brain is now associating the song with the fear of riding a rollercoaster.

Rather than continuing as a neutral stimulus, the song has become a conditioned stimulus because it produces a response with or without the occurrence of waiting in line and feeling fear. The increased heart rate is an unconditioned response of dreading getting on the rollercoaster, but now also becomes a conditioned response when it follows hearing that particular song. It is a conditioned response following the song because the song would not produce the elevated heart rate if it were not associated with the feelings of fear and anxiety you experienced while waiting in line.

Operant Conditioning

Next, let's visit Mr. Skinner. He studied what is called operant conditioning. You'll sometimes also hear this referred to as instrumental conditioning. In operant conditioning, learning refers to changes in behavior as a result of experiences that occur after a response.

Operant conditioning involves changing voluntary behaviors. A behavior response is followed by either reinforcement or punishment. Reinforcement following a behavior will cause the behavior to increase, but if behavior is followed by punishment the behavior will decrease.

Let's go back to the example of the rollercoaster. What would happen if you ended up liking the experience of riding the rollercoaster? This would be an example of reinforcement and would probably increase the likelihood that you would decide to ride again.

There are two types of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to the addition of something positive. Examples of this would be offering praise or a treat when a desired behavior is displayed. Negative reinforcement occurs when something undesirable is removed whenever a behavior is displayed. Examples of this would be taking aspirin to get rid of a headache or doing the dishes to avoid a fight with your roommate.

Because of its name, negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment. The key difference is that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative consequence to increase the likelihood of a response. Reinforcement always increases the occurrence of a response, while punishment always decreases the occurrence of a response.

Now, let's think of the example of the rollercoaster again. What would happen if, when you were seated and belted in, you felt sick and lightheaded and ended up vomiting during the ride? This would be an example of punishment, and it would probably decrease the likelihood that you would ever ride a rollercoaster again.

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Video Transcript

How Are Behaviors Learned?

Have you ever wondered how our behaviors are learned? Meet Ivan Pavlov and B.F. Skinner, two behavioral psychologists who pioneered the theories of classical and operant conditioning, respectively. Let's examine how the theories they studied help us understand the way we learn.

Classical Conditioning

First, let's visit Mr. Pavlov. He studied what is called classical conditioning. You'll sometimes also hear this referred to as respondent conditioning. In classical conditioning, learning refers to involuntary responses that result from experiences that occur before a response.

Classical conditioning occurs when you learn to associate two different stimuli. No behavior is involved. The first stimulus that you will encounter is called the unconditioned stimulus. An unconditioned stimulus produces a response without any previous learning. This response is called an unconditioned response.

For an example of a stimulus that evokes an unconditioned response, let's imagine a scenario of waiting in line to ride a rollercoaster that you don't want to ride. You've agreed to ride with your friends, but the sounds of the roaring train and screams of the passengers create involuntary fear responses; it causes you to experience an elevated heart rate, for example. This is a natural response, it is not learned, and it happens automatically. The unconditioned stimulus in this example are the sights and sounds of the rollercoaster you don't want to ride, and the elevated heart rate is the unconditioned response.

In classical conditioning, you now add a neutral stimulus to the experience. It is called a neutral stimulus because it is not associated with the unconditioned response. Thinking of our example of waiting to ride a rollercoaster, imagine that a particular song is playing over and over while you wait. The song will be the neutral stimulus. When the song is paired with the fear of getting on the rollercoaster, your heart rate still increases because of the fear of riding.

However, after repeated pairing of that song with the anxiety of getting on the ride, your brain will start to think, 'I hear that song, so something scary must be going to happen soon!' Because of this, you will experience an increased heart rate when you hear that song. Your brain is now associating the song with the fear of riding a rollercoaster.

Rather than continuing as a neutral stimulus, the song has become a conditioned stimulus because it produces a response with or without the occurrence of waiting in line and feeling fear. The increased heart rate is an unconditioned response of dreading getting on the rollercoaster, but now also becomes a conditioned response when it follows hearing that particular song. It is a conditioned response following the song because the song would not produce the elevated heart rate if it were not associated with the feelings of fear and anxiety you experienced while waiting in line.

Operant Conditioning

Next, let's visit Mr. Skinner. He studied what is called operant conditioning. You'll sometimes also hear this referred to as instrumental conditioning. In operant conditioning, learning refers to changes in behavior as a result of experiences that occur after a response.

Operant conditioning involves changing voluntary behaviors. A behavior response is followed by either reinforcement or punishment. Reinforcement following a behavior will cause the behavior to increase, but if behavior is followed by punishment the behavior will decrease.

Let's go back to the example of the rollercoaster. What would happen if you ended up liking the experience of riding the rollercoaster? This would be an example of reinforcement and would probably increase the likelihood that you would decide to ride again.

There are two types of reinforcement. Positive reinforcement refers to the addition of something positive. Examples of this would be offering praise or a treat when a desired behavior is displayed. Negative reinforcement occurs when something undesirable is removed whenever a behavior is displayed. Examples of this would be taking aspirin to get rid of a headache or doing the dishes to avoid a fight with your roommate.

Because of its name, negative reinforcement is often confused with punishment. The key difference is that negative reinforcement involves the removal of a negative consequence to increase the likelihood of a response. Reinforcement always increases the occurrence of a response, while punishment always decreases the occurrence of a response.

Now, let's think of the example of the rollercoaster again. What would happen if, when you were seated and belted in, you felt sick and lightheaded and ended up vomiting during the ride? This would be an example of punishment, and it would probably decrease the likelihood that you would ever ride a rollercoaster again.

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Study Prompts About Classical Conditioning vs. Operant Conditioning:

Writing Prompt 1:

Write a paragraph or two that summarizes the definition of classical conditioning, explains the role of stimuli in classical conditioning, and provides an example of classical conditioning. Example: Someone who has gone through a tornado experience rapid heartbeat and sweaty palms each time she or he hears the tornado warning siren.

Writing Prompt 2:

Write a paragraph or two that summarizes operant conditioning, the roles of positive and negative reinforcement, the roles of positive and negative punishment, and provides an example of operant conditioning. Example: When a puppy receives a treat for going to the bathroom outside, he associates rewards with appropriate bathroom behavior, and his willingness to comply with house training increases.

Writing Prompt 3:

Write an essay of at least 2-3 paragraphs that explains the different types of punishment and the different types of reinforcement, providing examples of each. Feel free to get creative! Tip: The types of reinforcement are positive reinforcement and negative reinforcement, and the types of punishment are positive punishment and negative punishment. Be sure to make it clear in your essay what it means for a punishment to be "positive"!

Graphic Organizer Prompt 1:

Create a chart or other type of graphic organizer that contains the key words associated with the phenomena that are associated with conditioning. Be sure to include definitions of the terms and examples of each. Tip: The key words are extinction, extinction burst, spontaneous recovery, and stimulus generation.

What is an example of operant conditioning in psychology?

An example of operant conditioning would be a child who is trained to do a chore at home by being given a reward for completing it, such as stickers, praise, or screen time. Specifically, this would be an example of positive reinforcement, which strengthens the behavior by adding something pleasant.

How can classical conditioning be used?

Classical conditioning can be used in therapeutic treatment for people who have phobias to help them learn new associations. Since fear responses are a result of a learned association, developing new associations between stimuli can create a new conditioned response in place of the fear response.

What are the 4 types of operant conditioning?

Positive reinforcement strengthens a particular behavior by adding something pleasant as a consequence.

Negative reinforcement strengthens a particular behavior by removing something unpleasant as a consequence.

Positive punishment weakens a particular behavior by adding something unpleasant as a consequence.

Negative punishment weakens a particular behavior by removing something pleasant as a consequence.

What is an example of classical conditioning in psychology?

An example of classical conditioning would be if you visit your grandmother (unconditioned stimulus) and it makes you feel happy (unconditioned response). The neutral stimulus might be a certain perfume smell she wears or a candle scent in her home. If you smell this scent somewhere else (conditioned stimulus) it can trigger that same happy feeling (conditioned response) even though your grandmother is not present. .

How do you explain operant conditioning?

Operant conditioning is the shaping or modifying of behaviors through the use of consequences. These consequences can either be rewards used to strengthen a behavior or punishments used to weaken a behavior.

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