Classical vs Operant Conditioning

Classical conditioning is identified with Pavlov’s dog. It begins with the observation that some things produce natural responses. “Lucky” smells meat and salivates. By pairing an artificial stimulus with a natural one—such as ringing a bell when the steak appears—the dog associates the two. Ring the bell; the dog salivates.

(Pavlov was smart enough not to use a cat; cats, like humans, are too independent.)

Operant conditioning, in contrast to classical conditioning, is concerned with how an action may be controlled by a stimulus that comes AFTER it, rather than before it. When a reward follows a behavior, then that behavior is likely to be repeated. Today, we refer to this psychology as “behaviorism.”

Burros Frederic Skinner (1904-1990), the famed Harvard University psychologist,  became popular with this practice of behaviorism. Skinner preferred the term “reinforcement.” Skinnerians (behaviorists) are apt to argue that virtually everything—even who we are—can be explained in terms of the principal of reinforcement. The supposition is that all behavior is the result of external influences (that which is reinforced, e.g., reward the dog for doing what you want, and ignore behavior you do not want reinforced). Internal motivation of any kind is never considered.

Behaviorists speak about how “organisms” learn based upon the assumption that humans are animals—different from other animals only in the types of behaviors displayed. It is no wonder that, with this belief, Skinner conducted most of his experiments on rodents and pigeons and wrote most of his books about people.

Unfortunately, many educational policy makers are still espousing this approach by mandating Positive Behavioral Interventions  and Supports (PBIS ).