Limits on Operant and Classical Conditioning

Instructor: Lisa Roundy

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

This lesson will discuss reasons the association between a stimulus and a response can break down and prevent the success of classical and operant conditioning techniques.


Have you ever felt nervous getting into a car after you have been in an accident? Do you sip your hot chocolate until you know it is cool enough to drink because it has burned your tongue in the past? Does hearing a song from your childhood make you feel happy? If any of these things seem familiar, you have had some experience with conditioning even if you didn't know it!

Classical conditioning occurs when you learn to associate a stimulus with a response, and operant conditioning occurs when we learn to change our response to a stimulus based on what happens after our response.

For this lesson, it isn't important that we get into the detailed workings of classical and operant conditioning. What we need to understand is that both types of conditioning are based on the idea that behavior is the result of a response to a stimulus. In other words, something happens (the stimulus) and it causes something else to happen (the response).

The principles of conditioning are based on an association between a stimulus and a response.

This means that conditioning is limited by the ability to associate a particular stimulus with a particular response. You wouldn't feel nervous getting into a car after an accident if you didn't associate the accident with the car. If you didn't associate burning your tongue with hot chocolate you wouldn't be concerned with how you drink it. The song from your childhood wouldn't make you feel happy if it wasn't associated with a happy event.

As we continue this lesson, let's look at some things that might interfere with the stimulus-response relationship, making conditioning unsuccessful.

Compound Stimulus

Interference with the association between a stimulus and response can occur when there is a compound stimulus. This means that more than one stimulus is presented at the same time. Two types of compound stimulus are:

  • Overshadowing
  • Blocking

Overshadowing occurs if the strongest part of a compound stimulus is associated with the response but a weaker part of the compound stimulus is not. Imagine a loud buzzer sounds and a red light comes on each time you feed a dog. Soon the dog will get excited and expect food when it these two things happen together.

When each stimulus is tested separately the dog gets excited upon hearing the buzzer but does not react to the light. If the light was the only stimulus, the dog would have associated it with food, but conditioning to the light did not occur because it was paired with, and overshadowed by, the buzzer.

Blocking happens when a stimulus that has already been learned interferes with associating a new stimulus. This is the idea behind the phrase, 'You can't teach an old dog a new trick.'

Imagine the dog had previously learned to associate the red light with food. When you pair the red light with the buzzer for a period of time and then test each stimulus separately, the dog does not react to the buzzer. The dog did not learn to associate a new stimulus because the presence of an old stimulus was blocking this association.

Latent Inhibition

Latent inhibition is another thing that can interfere with the association between stimulus and response. Latent inhibition is the idea that a familiar stimulus is more difficult to condition than an unusual stimulus. Imagine a rabbit is hopping along in a field of clovers. It does this happily every day. Then one day the rabbit is attacked by a fox. It would make sense that the rabbit would associate the fear of being attacked with the unfamiliar smell of a fox that intruded on its day. The rabbit would not readily associate the familiar smell of clover with its fear.

Biological Limitations

Biological factors that are pre-programmed can also limit conditioning. Taste aversion and instinctive drift are two examples of this.

To unlock this lesson you must be a Member.
Create your account

Register to view this lesson

Are you a student or a teacher?

Unlock Your Education

See for yourself why 30 million people use

Become a member and start learning now.
Become a Member  Back
What teachers are saying about
Try it risk-free for 30 days

Earning College Credit

Did you know… We have over 200 college courses that prepare you to earn credit by exam that is accepted by over 1,500 colleges and universities. You can test out of the first two years of college and save thousands off your degree. Anyone can earn credit-by-exam regardless of age or education level.

To learn more, visit our Earning Credit Page

Transferring credit to the school of your choice

Not sure what college you want to attend yet? has thousands of articles about every imaginable degree, area of study and career path that can help you find the school that's right for you.

Create an account to start this course today
Try it risk-free for 30 days!
Create an account