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Classical and Operant Conditioning

There are two forms of conditioning that assist in understanding human behavior namely, classical and operant conditioning. Both classical and operant conditionings are assumptions that what takes place in our mind are shaped by the environment around, in which we work or live. Classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through association of stimulus occurring naturally with environmental stimulus. It involves placing the naturally occurring reflex after a neutral signal (Skinner, 1996).

A good illustration of how classical conditioning occurs is an experiment involving dogs in what was popularly referred to as Pavlov’s classical experiment. A tone of sound, for instance a whistle was used as the naturally occurring stimulus just before it is served with food. Every time the whistle will make a high-pitched sound the dog will associate it with food and would salivate even before seeing the food. The act of presenting food to the dog is the environmental stimulus.

Classical and Operant Conditioning

The love of dogs can still serve as a good real world example of classical conditioning. Anyone who likes dogs is not afraid at  all in their company, but a bad experience with a dog for example being beaten by one will make a dog lover hate it to a point avoiding its company, keeping any and even changing directions every time he comes across a dog in the streets. The dog in this case is a neutral stimuli and the bite serves as an unconditional stimulus which is the cause of the unconditional response of fear and pain. A person beaten by a dog does not need to learn how to react with fear every time he/she comes across one. It just occurs naturally through this form of behavior. At this point the particular dog ceases to be a neutral and becomes a conditioned stimulus which makes the person fearful every time he sees it. Stimulus generalization occurs when the dog-bite victim fears any dog that they come across even when it is clear it is different from the one that had bitten him or her (Skinner, 1996).

Operant conditioning makes use of behavior that is voluntary and shaped by consequences resulting by earlier happening or actions. An organism or person adopting this behavior therefore can choose to adopt or reject certain actions that they know will lead to them reacting in a certain manner. The frequency of a particular behavior is therefore likely to increase or decrease depending on the reinforcing factors. Those forms of behavior with consequences that are favorable are likely to occur more frequently than those with unfavorable consequences. Behavior according to this form of conditioning is not as a result of internal processes for instance thoughts or emotions. It is believed that behavior is chosen.

A real life example of this behavior is a student being encouraged to work hard and improve his or her grades in school. The desired behavior in this case is improved grades. A person who wants this to happen can decide to offer a promise of something that he/she knows the student will enjoy or would like to own for instance a mountain bicycle if  the student enjoys cycling when out of school or during vacation. This bicycle will therefore be offered as a present on condition that the student performs well. With prove that the student has done well and improved his/her grades and the bicycle given to him as a present, it strengthens the desirable behavior of working hard and improving on academic grades. It will therefore occur that every time the student is offered a present they will perform better in an effort to have what they had been promised (Skinner, 1996).

It is also possible to discourage negative behavior through the application of operant conditioning by following misbehavior with undesirable event or punishment. The person will in future choose not to engage in the behavior that caused the undesirable result. This will have succeeded already in changing the behavior of the person targeted (Skinner, 1996).



Skinner, B. (1996). About Behaviorism. New York: Vintage Books.


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