Operant And Classical Conditioning

Operant and classical conditioning are essential concepts key to behavioral psychology. While the two concepts usually lead to learning, the processes through which these two concepts achieve learning are different. For one to understand well how each of these concepts modifies behavior and how one can use them to modify behavior it is essential to note their main differences. While classical conditioning entails putting, a signal that is neutral before reflex, operant conditioning involves applying punishment and reinforcement after a certain behavior is exhibited. Classical conditioning puts more focus on behaviors that are involuntary and automatic while operant conditioning emphasizes more on weakening or strengthening a voluntary behavior (Domjan, 2003). This paper will show the differences between these two conditioning concepts by using an example of a practical observation made in a local restaurant.

One evening, I was enjoying lunch with a friend at a local restaurant. Families frequent the restaurant mostly, but we went because the food is delicious. We were minding our own business when a family of four came in and sat directly in frontof our table. The family consisted of the parents and two girls, one was small like 2 years of age and the other was almost four years old by my calculations. They ordered their food and sat quietly as they waited for their food to arrive. The girls, however, started playing. I ignored them and carried on with my meal until sharp cries and children crying from the table in front caught my attention.

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When I looked up, I could see that the older girl was throwing major tantrums and tagging at her younger sister violently. The mother lifted the baby away from the hysterical girl and ordered her to be quiet. From what I could hear, the older girl wanted to take away the younger girl’s doll. The younger one was not up for that and a fight had ensued. The mother looked angrily at the older child and told her to stop her behavior at once. The child did not seem to hear or did not want to. The mother took away her milkshake and told her that she would only give it back if the child stopped behaving badly. Surprisingly, the child stopped screaming and tagging at her younger sister and sat down quietly.

This is an example of operant conditioning whereby both positive and negative reinforcements were used. The parent took away the child’s milkshake because she was behaving badly, and when she stopped showing these undesirable behaviors, she was positively rewarded by getting her milkshake back. This is an excellent example of how one can use operant conditioning to achieve a desired outcome. The mother used the concept successfully and she achieved the outcome she desired, as her daughter stopped behaving badly. It was obvious that the girl changed her behavior because of the conditioning process. She only stopped throwing tantrums when the negative reinforcement was used, and she continued to show this desirable behavior after she received a positive reinforcement. However, if the child would have continued to act undesirably after the milkshake was taken, the parents could have resorted to classical conditioning in which case, they would have to focus on those behaviors that are automatic and involuntary. For instance, they would ask themselves why the child is behaving like that, and conclude that it could be because she does not have a doll, and, therefore, she might feel left out. The parents could buy her a doll and reassure her that she means to them as much as her little sister.

The concepts developed by the early learning and behavioral theorists are extremely relevant to today’s life as they show and highlight how and why individuals behave the way they do, and what can be done to encourage or discourage certain behaviors. The concepts are extremely relevant when it comes to molding individual’s behaviors(Carlson, Neil& Donald, 2007).




Carlson, H., Neil, R. & Donald, C. (2007). Psychology the Science of Behaviors. New Jersey:        Pearson.

Domjan, M. (2003). The Principles of Learning and Behavior. Belmont, CA: Thomson.


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