Comparison of classical and operant conditioning

Processes of classical conditioning vs. processes of operant conditioning


  • Classical conditioning: association formed between two stimuli (the NS and the UCS) to form the CS so that they produce the same response (the CR)
  • Operant conditioning: association formed between a behaviour and a subsequent consequence (either a reward or punishment)


  • Classical conditioning: NS is repeatedly presented without the UCS, leading to a disassociation between the two, thus the CR not being produced
  • Operant conditioning: reinforcing consequences (reward or punishment) are repeatedly not provided after the behaviour

Stimulus generalisation

  • Classical conditioning: occurs when stimuli similar to, but not the CS produce the CR
  • Operant conditioning: occurs when a behaviour is shown following stimuli similar to, but not, the stimuli where reinforcement has been obtained

Stimulus discrimination

  • Classical conditioning: only the CS produces the CR
  • Operant conditioning: only the stimulus which has been reinforced produces the desired behaviour

Spontaneous recovery

  • Classical conditioning: CR is produced after the NS and UCS are associated again, after a period of rest
  • Operant conditioning: a behaviour is re-learned after it becomes reinforced again, after a period of rest

Role of the learner

  • Classical conditioning: passive
  • Operant conditioning: active

Timing of stimulus and response

  • Classical conditioning: reinforcement occurs before the response
  • Operant conditioning: reinforcement occurs after the response

Nature of response

  • Classical conditioning: reflexive and involuntary
  • Operant conditioning: non-reflexive and voluntary