Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning: An Important Distinction

What’s the difference between these two? Why should I care?

Before I dive into our next few topics, I want to make a very clear distinction between these two forms of conditioning – operant and classical. Strap yourself in and grab a nice cup of coffee, because this article is going to be a bit of a history lesson.

Operant Conditioning is built around the idea that a behavior cares about the consequences of its actions. In short, if a behavior results in a reward, then it is more likely to happen again. If a behavior results in a punishment, then it is more likely to not happen again. If a behavior results in nothing, then it will return to a baseline. Operant Conditioning is what we use in dog training and most forms of behavior modification in the modern day. 

Alternatively, Classical Conditioning works more with reflexes and behaviors that aren’t exactly picked by the subject. Classical Conditioning believes that stimuli trigger behaviors. The most classic example of this is Pavlov’s dogs. When food is presented, the dogs salivate. They don’t choose to salivate, they just do so because the smell of food elicits that response from them. Classical in this regard will pair these involuntary actions with different stimuli to achieve an effect. Remember, according to this version of conditioning, these behaviors are NOT maintained by their consequences. 

Pavlov and his Dogs

Dogs and food. Name a more iconic duo.

I want to take a moment to really touch on how amazing this experiment was for showing how Classical Conditioning works. 

Ivan Pavlov, a Russian scientist who worked in the fields of physiology and neurology, wanted to discover the relationship between reflexive behavior and different stimuli. Pavlov wanted to explore the relationship between food being presented to his dogs, and his dogs salivating. However, Pavlov also noticed that the dogs were salivating when they heard his assistant’s footsteps. This was strange cause footsteps don’t smell, sound, or taste like food. So why salivate? Curious about this relationship, Pavlov created his now-famous experiment. 

To do this, he surgically attached test tubes to the dogs so that he could capture the dog’s saliva for measurement. From there, he presented food to the dogs and measured saliva. After that, he started a metronome and measured saliva again. Then he would start the metronome and provide the dogs with food. After enough times, he would start the metronome by itself again and measure saliva. 

What happened in the experiment?

There should be more experiments where we just give dogs treats and see what happens.

When the dogs were presented with food, they naturally began to salivate. Then, when the metronome was played by itself, the dogs didn’t react or salivate.

The metronome was then started before food was presented to the dogs. Afterward, the dogs were presented with just the bell alone again. This time, the dogs began to salivate in response to the bell. 

Okay, what does that mean for me?

If you’ve worked with animalas before, this experiment sounds like one big “no duh.” Yes, dogs salivate when food is near them. They will also salivate when something sounds like it will be giving them food. But the beauty of this experiment is that Pavlov discovered how reflexes, or Unconditioned Responses (UCR), could be controlled by something the subject has never seen before (a Neutral Stimulus or NS). While we may have an understanding of why dogs will salivate when they hear something like dishes clanging or people walking toward them, Pavlov’s experiment was able to formalize exactly how this process works. 

I hope you’re ready for a bunch of technical terms, cause I’m going to throw them at you at lightning speed now. 

Pavlov’s research shows us that you could create a chain of learning by associating an Unconditioned Response (UCR) to a Neutral Stimulus (NS). In Classical Conditioning, an Unconditioned Response (UCR) is just a subject’s natural reflex or behavior they would do normally. In Pavlov’s case, this is the dogs salivating. An Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS) is something that the subject will respond to without any form of conditioning or prompting. For the dogs, that’s food. Probably to the surprise of many of the people reading this blog, dogs will salivate when they see food with little prompting. Shocker, I know. 

When we pair these two things (the UCR and UCS) with a Neutral Stimulus (NS) – a stimulus that the subject has no relationship with at all – then we create a Conditioned Response (CR) which is just the behavior we’ve conditioned our subject to react with. The Neutral Stimulus now becomes a Conditioned Stimulus (CS) which is the stimulus that now elicits the Conditioned Response (CR). 

Still with me? Don’t worry about it. Let’s break down exactly what happened in Pavlov’s experiment. 

Breakdown of Pavlov’s Experiment

What Pavlov did in his experiment was associate the UCR of salivating with the NS of the metronome. Remember, Unconditioned Responses are just behaviors your subject will do naturally. The metronome, before any form of conditioning, also means nothing to the dogs – thus it’s a neutral stimulus. 

Once Pavlov paired the metronome with the food, the metronome became a Conditioned Stimulus because the dogs have been conditioned to associate the metronome with food. Now when the metronome is played (the CS), it would elicit the Conditioned Response of salivating. 

As a result, Pavlov could make his dogs drool on command. The exact chain would look like this:

UCS (Food) > UCR (Salivating)

NS (Bell) > Nothing

CS (Bell) > CR (Salivating)

Why This Is Cool

If you want to see why this experiment was so cool, be ready to do some jumping.

This experiment showed that we could control reflexes by attaching them to a stimulus. You most likely won’t be using this in dog training however, but it’s good to know that this can work for some reflexive behaviors. 

For me personally, I didn’t think this was super cool until I got to run an experiment on some classmates to see the concept first hand. 

First, get a partner and their smartphone, or get a bell. If you want you can also get a stethoscope for additional fun.

Next, take your resting heart rate and write that down. Then, you should hop up and down on one foot for about a minute. After that minute, have your partner take your pulse. 

Alright, next step. Have your partner ring the bell, or use their smartphone to make a small tone. When the bell is rung, or when you hear the small tone, start hopping up and down again for about a minute. Do this process 2-3 more times. You can rest a bit between each time, and don’t forget to record your heart rate. 

Now for the final step. Have your partner play the tone or ring the bell, and then immediately take your heart rate. Do not hop up and down.

If everything went right, your heart rate should spike above your resting heart rate, but you’re not jumping up and down.

Pretty neat right?    

Classical Conditioning vs Operant Conditioning

Two different systems in the same science.

So now that we’ve experienced Classical Conditioning and how it works, what makes Operant so different? 

As we said in the intro, Operant Conditioning works with the belief that behaviors are maintained by their consequences. Classical believes what matters is the stimuli before the behavior. 

In dog training, we use Operant Conditioning because we find it’s easier (and more ethical) to control and maintain voluntary behavior with Operant Conditioning. The application of clickers, treats, and in rare occasions, punishment, allow trainers to shape and maintain a behavior with more control than what Classical Conditioning can offer. 

The reason why this distinction is so important is cause these next few articles will talk about Antecedents a bit more. I’ve covered antecedents a bit in my Stimulus Control article, but It’s important to understand that those concepts should never be confused with Classical Conditioning’s belief in a Conditioned Stimulus or Conditioned Responses.

To clarify, an easy way to separate these two concepts is to think about Antecedents as a signal that reinforcement can be earned once the behaviors are completed. Stimuli in comparison, according to Classical Conditioning, will cause or control the behavior, instead of being a signal that reinforcement is available at the end of the behavior.  

One More Example for the Road

I imagine this was my professor’s reaction to Clockwork Orange the first time she saw it.

One of the best ways I keep these two systems separate from one another is by remembering a certain Professor’s favorite pastime during class: she loved to express her undying hatred for the movie “A Clockwork Orange.” As she pointed out, ‘it’s a lame attempt at sensationalizing classical conditioning and I hated every second of it.’

For those unfamiliar with that movie, the main character is conditioned to associate violent actions and with a debilitating sense of nausea. It was most definitely a very sensationalized version of Classical Conditioning, but it was still using concepts from Classical Conditioning. 

I could do a breakdown of what happens in that movie, but I’m going to leave that to you, the reader. If you want some practice at Classical Conditioning, then please leave a breakdown of how they conditioned Alex in that movie in the comments below. Remember, ask yourself what the UCS, UCR, NS, CS, and CR are. 

The exact scenario in that movie is that Alex is injected with a drug that would make him feel intense nausea. He was then shown violent films and videos. While he was watching those videos, he would begin to feel ill from the drug. Now, Alex gets ill whenever he feels an urge to do violence or even witnesses violence. This example might end up being a bit complicated, but it’s still good practice. 

Anyway, back to my professor. 

One day, in one of her many rants, she said “if Alex was a patient of mine, it would not happen even REMOTELY like this.” I raised an eyebrow and asked her what modern Behaviorism would do in Alex’s situation.

She replied that they’d first start with an ABC analysis of Alex’s behavior. Figuring out what Alex was doing and how that was being reinforced is key to figuring out how to weaken his criminal behavior. Second, removing any form of stimulus that would serve as an antecedent to Alex’s behavior. Finally, Alex would be put on a schedule of differential reinforcement that would reward him for any good behaviors he would do while punishing any bad behaviors. In an ideal world, this would all be accomplished through a token economy. 

As you can see, her proposed solution to rehabilitating Alex works with changing the consequences of Alex’s behavior. The movie, despite how sensationalized it was, still tried controlling the stimuli before Alex’s behavior, and thus falls into the category of Classical Conditioning. 


Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning exist as two types of Behavior Modification. 

Operant Conditioning works from the idea that behavior is maintained by the consequences that follow the behavior, not the stimulus. 

Classical conditioning on the other hand believes the stimulus elicits a behavior, and by controlling the stimulus, we can control the behavior. 

Pavlov’s famous experiment is the perfect example for exactly how Classical Conditioning works. 

As interesting as Classical Conditioning is, it’s not what we use in today’s world because of how useful Operant Conditioning is. The important take-away here is the distinction between these two schools of thought and to make sure you never mix them up.

Thank you for reading!

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