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The Connection Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

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If asked to define conditioning, I would say it is the act of using repeated efforts to shape something into what is desired. In the context of psychology, conditioning is described as a way of learning. Psychologists categorize learning by conditioning into two branches, classical and operant. In order for either type of conditioning to take place, certain stimuli must be present. In addition, there are cases where classical and operant conditioning are both applied.

In order for classical conditioning to take place, there must be two stimuli present. These stimuli are external sources that act to trigger internal responses. The two required for classical conditioning are the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus. How the unconditioned stimulus and conditioned stimulus work can be understood easier through the infamous example of Pavlov. In Ivan Pavlov’s experiment, he conditioned dogs to produce saliva every time a bell rang. The bell acted as the unconditioned stimulus and rang every time food was brought to the dogs. This bell was paired with the conditioned stimulus, which was the food being given to the dogs. Eventually, hearing the bell alone could make the dogs salivate. When the unconditioned stimulus can solicit a response without the conditioned stimulus, classical conditioning has occurred. One case of classical conditioning in my own life was also caused by food, except it did not make me salivate. My dad took my siblings and I out to eat at Buffalo Wild Wings. I ordered eight garlic parmesan boneless chicken wings and ate every single one of them. All was well until about twelve that night when my stomach began cramping. I rushed to the bathroom, but sadly I did not reach the toilet in time. I then proceeded to projectile vomit all over the toilet, sink, walls, and floor. Based on the pain in my abdomen and the amount of throw up, I believe that it was food poisoning. I think my dad, who had to clean up after me, would agree. After that, I was unable to eat buffalo wild wings for years and the thought of it still makes me sick to my stomach. In my case, the conditioned stimulus was the abominable vomit I produced, while the unconditioned stimulus is my disdain towards Buffalo Wild Wings.

Operant conditioning also involves stimulus, but it is founded more on reward and punishment. Operant conditioning is based on the theory of B.F. Skinner. Skinners’ belief is that learning occurs when an individual’s response to stimulus is rewarded. The reward is what encourages the response to be repeated. In a similar way, if the response to stimulus is met with punishment, it will not be repeated. Skinner refers to the rewards and punishments of operant conditioning as reinforcers. Instances of positive reinforcers are winning, receiving recognition, or earning a prize, while instances of negative reinforcers are being reprimanded, losing, or getting a bad grade. The most prominent example of operant conditioning I’ve experienced happened when I was in the fifth grade. I had played softball since I was four years old, and I loved it. Up until my last year playing, I had gained mostly positive reinforcers from the sport. I knew that if I crossed home plate, caught the ball, or got an out that I would receive praise from my coach and teammates. But more importantly to me, I would receive praise from my parents. When softball season rolled around my fifth grade year I didn’t have a team to join, and so my parents had what they thought was a great idea. They would coach my softball team. At first it sounded promising, but early into the season, I realized why nobody wants to be coached by their parents. Instead of the praise I was used to getting from my mom and dad, I got critiques. It felt like they put the pressure of winning and losing on me. After that year I never played softball again. Because of the negative reinforcers I was met with, I lost the desire to continue responding. Of course, my parents apologized at the end of the season and I found new activities to acquire positive reinforcers from.

It is not uncommon for classical conditioning and operant conditioning to coincide with one another. Recall my story of being classically conditioned through throwing up. Imagine that my dad, who had to clean up my vomit, was both classically and operantly conditioned. His conditioned stimulus was the food we ate at buffalo wild wings. He was punished by having to clean up my vomit, and now his unconditioned stimulus could be gagging every time he goes into the bathroom. Both types of conditioning also happened when I played softball. My unconditioned response was knowing that it is painful to be hit in the face with a softball and my conditioned response was to catch the softball. In return for catching the softball, I would be rewarded with approval from my coach. Whether acting together or separately, operant and classical conditioning provide the basis for how we learn most things.


  • Last Updated November 30th, 2018 07:12 pm. (n.d.). Operant Conditioning (B.F. Skinner). Retrieved from
  • Mcleod, S. (2018, August 21). Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from
  • Bouton, M. E. (2019). Conditioning and learning. In R. Biswas-Diener & E. Diener (Eds), Noba textbook series: Psychology. Champaign, IL: DEF publishers. Retrieved from
  • King, L.A. (2016). The Science of Psychology: An Appreciative View. McGraw-Hill Education. 

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