The Behaviorism Components of Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two major components of behaviorism. Behaviorist do not believe in free will, but rather behaviorist believe that everyone is born with a blank slate, or tabula rasa, and everyone’s behavior is shaped through positive and negative reinforcement, so rather than someone being born the way that they are and everything they ever do is predetermined, a person’s behavior is shaped by the world. Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, is accredited with making famous classical conditioning through his experiments with dogs, while B.

F. Skinner – an American psychologist, behaviorist, author, inventor, and social philosopher – is known for making operant conditioning popular, although operant conditioning did not become widely accepted until the 1930s. B. F. Skinner’s theory of operant conditioning was based off of Edward Thorndike’s Law of Effect.

Both forms of conditioning are similar in the aspect of teaching behavior, however take different approaches as to how to go about it (Iverson, 1992).

Classical conditioning consists of conditioned, unconditioned and neutral stimuli, and conditioned and unconditioned responses to these stimuli. This form of conditioning became widely acknowledged in the 1890s when Pavlov conducted his experiment with dogs. Pavlov measured the salivation of dogs when presented with food – an unconditioned stimulus – by placing a device in the dog’s mouth that measured the amount of salivation when presented with food. The dog’s salivation at the sight or smell of the food is known as an unconditioned response because the dog did not have to be taught to salivate at the sight of food, but was rather a natural response, and therefore not influenced – unconditioned.

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Pavlov then began ringing a bell – a neutral stimulus – each time he brought the food to the dog, and so after time whenever he was to ring the bell, the dog would anticipate food.

Eventually, Pavlov would ring the bell, but there would be no food for the dog. The dog, who had come to associate the bell with food, would salivate just as much as if presented with food, even though there was no food. The unconditioned stimulus of the food paired with the neutral stimulus of the bell, turned the bell – the neutral stimulus – into a conditioned stimulus. The bell became a conditioned stimulus because the bell before the food was paired with it would not have caused the dog to salivate, which is why the bell was considered neutral – it did not provoke a response. So, when paired with the food, the bell became on the same level as the food to the dog, and when Pavlov would ring the bell and the dog would salivate, the dog’s reaction would become a conditioned response, because the dog had been taught – or conditioned – to respond to the bell the same way as the food.

So, while the food by itself causing the dog to salivate became an unconditioned response – instinctive – the bell, after the experiment, became a conditioned response when it caused the same reaction (Krugman, 1994). Operant conditioning, like classical conditioning, teaches and encourages a behavior, however, the purpose of operant conditioning is to explain how consequences lead to changes in behavior. The two aspects that make up operant conditioning are reinforcement and punishment. Reinforcement makes someone – human or animal – more likely to do something again, while punishment makes someone less likely to do something again. Both reinforcement and punishment can be negative and positive. Positive, in terms of operant conditioning, means the addition of a stimulus, while negative means the removal of a stimulus (Kerr, Grayden, Thomas, Gilson & Burkitt, 2014).

While Pavlov used his dogs to explain classical conditioning, Skinner used his rats – and even pigeons – to explain operant conditioning in what is known as the Skinner Box Experiment. Skinner placed hungry rats into a box that had a lever, a speaker, signal lights, an electric grid on the floor, and a food dispenser. Each time the speaker would sound a specific bell tone and the rat would hit the lever, he would get food. Eventually, the rat realized this, and whenever the bells rang he would hit the lever and receive the food. This is an example of positive reinforcement. The food is the positive reinforcement because it is being added, in order to reinforce the behavior of pushing the lever. The positive reinforcement makes the rat more likely to repeat that behavior of pushing the lever in the future, because he now knows that he will get something that he wants – the food – if he repeats this behavior.

If the food had been taken away, that would be negative punishment, rather than reinforcement, because something the rat wanted – the food – would be removed in order to make the rat less likely rather than more likely to repeat the action (Weiss & Rosales-Ruiz, 2014). Eventually, Skinner included two different lights to the Skinner Box. When the first light was on and the rat would press the lever, the electric grid that made up the floor would shock the rat. That shock was positive punishment, because the rat was receiving something, an added stimulus, in order for to make him less likely to repeat the action of pressing the lever when that certain light was on. If he were to press the lever at the correct time and relieve the electric shock, this would be an example of negative reinforcement because the unwanted stimulus of the shock would be taken away (Weiss & Rosales-Ruiz, 2014).

Because the reward of the shock being taken away makes the rat more likely to press the lever in the future, this is an example of reinforcement, and because it’s a stimulus that is being taken away, the reinforcement becomes negative. In conclusion, both classical and operant conditioning are the two major components of behaviorism. Although the two theories differ in execution, the end result is the same – change in behavior. Stimuli are used to either provoke a conditioned response, or to reinforce or punish a behavior (Donahoe, 2014).


  1. Donahoe, J. W. (2014). Evocation of Behavioral Change by the Reinforcer is the Critical Event in Both the Classical and Operant Procedures. International Journal Of Comparative Psychology, 27(4), 537-543. Iversen, I. H. (1992).
  2. Skinner’s early research: From reflexology to operant conditioning. American Psychologist, 47(11), 1318-1328. doi:10.1037/0003-066X.47.11.1318
    Kerr, R. R., Grayden, D. B., Thomas, D. A., Gilson, M., & Burkitt, A. N. (2014).
  3. Coexistence of Reward and Unsupervised Learning During the Operant Conditioning of Neural Firing Rates. Plos ONE, 9(1), 1-14. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0087123 Krugman, H. E. (1994).
  4. Observations: Pavlov’s Dog and the Future of Consumer Psychology.Journal Of Advertising Research, 34(6), 67-70.Weiss, S. J., & Rosales-Ruiz, J. (2014).
  5. Introduction to the Special Issue on Operant/Classical Conditioning: Comparisons, Intersections and Interactions. International Journal Of Comparative Psychology, 27(4), 515-525.

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The Behaviorism Components of Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning. (2022, Mar 08). Retrieved from

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