A brief explanation of Classical and Operant Condition by Malcolm Macmillan

There are certain names that come to mind when you consider the Behaviourist perspective.  Pavlov (1849 - 1936) and Skinner (1904 – 1990) were influential in developing an understanding of the behavioural responses or organisms to the presentation of stimulus.

Ivan Pavlov has been associated with the term “Classical Conditioning” since around 1947.  He noticed through his research with dogs that there was an automatic response from the dog being used for the experiment and the presentation of the food.  When the dog was shown food it was noticed that the dog salivated. We know that salivation is used to soften food in order to digest the food so when we put something in our mouths saliva is secreted as an automatic bodily response.  On just viewing the food the dog would salivate.  I think we can all relate to that in that when we smell something we love to eat, or even just think about it, our mouth begins to water.  This automatic response in preparation for digestion is what Pavlov called “unconditional response” (Gross, 2001, Pg 141).  This “unconditional response” is triggered by the “unconditional stimulus”, the introduction of food.  What Pavlov began to work on was to create the same response to a totally different and seemingly unconnected stimulus, a bell.  We know that normally the ringing of a bell would not cause a dog or a person to salivate so Pavlov introduced an association between the sound of the bell and the food to produce the salivation response.  Pavlov’s introduction of a “conditioned stimulus”, the sound of the bell, would be recognised by the dog as a pre-emptor for the presentation of the food.  The more often the is done the better established the association becomes.  Therefore; when the dog hears the sound of the bell and the food was presented the response that the dog salivated.  As this was repeated over and over, the sound of the bell, known as the “conditioned stimulus” began to generate a “conditioned response” for the dog began to salivate on hearing the sound of the bell and before the presentation of the food.

We can see similar patterns in the work of John Watson (1920) as he worked on the phobic responses of children to certain animals.  It was thought that the child’s response was a “conditioned response”, although the reason for this development was not always clear, to a “conditioned stimulus”.  What was required to alleviate the troubling response was for work to be carried out to establish that whatever events or circumstances caused the “conditioned response” were no longer present therefore, the response is no longer required. 

“Operant conditioning”, as introduced by B.F. Skinner (1957) looks at the relationship between certain behaviours and the events or circumstances that stimulated the behaviour.  Skinner’s work demonstrated that the animal could be encouraged to perform and action based on the introduction of a “reinforce”, usually food.  A lever would be pressed by the animal resulting in food being released (a positive reinforcer) for the animal.  The action is repeated, determined by the motivation of the animal (hungry) and the “positive reinforcer” (food) is presented.  The timing and frequency of the presentation of the “positive reinforcer” (reward) will influence the effectiveness of the establishment of the behaviour.  If the timing or frequency becomes inconstant the expected behaviour will not be established as effectively.

Negative reinforcement can also be seen when a behaviour results in a “punishment” being introduced to discourage the repetition of unwanted behaviour.  This can sometimes prove questionable as the concept of punishment takes on moral issues.  We do however, find we often use such methods to discourage seemingly negative behaviours in children and adults as we see the introduction of reward and consequences as a positive or negative reinforcer.  Richard Gross (2001, Pg 151) speaks of some of the challenges this can present as in the case of the child who is starved of emotional connection gets punished for being “naughty”.  The parent intends for the punishment to be a negative reinforcer to cease the unwanted behaviour, however, as this is the only interaction the child receives, the behaviour is repeated.  The same can be seen in adults who may have been socially isolated for whatever reason, and they demonstrate behaviours requiring intervention from the police, fire department, health etc. The more the behaviours are responded to the more the unwanted behaviour will be established, reinforced.  This can lead to children or adults to demonstrating frequent negative behaviours or the other party ignoring the behaviour, or person, resulting in an escalation of the behaviour to the point of risk. 

Work carried out with people demonstrating such behaviours looks at the introduction of positive reinforcers prior to the escalation.  For example, as an individual becomes aware of the rising issue they are given a method of indicating that they are struggling with the situation.  The positive reinforcer might be that they are given time out with or without company and praised for recognising the potential difficulty.  No such situation is without the possibility of being misused though for it could be used as a way to get out of situation they need to be involved with.  The time out, company or praised serves as a positive reinforcement to do the same again when they get anxious again.  One major factor in the effectiveness of this is the consistency in the presentation of the positive reinforcer.  If only some staff, for instance, value the positive reinforcer as an appropriate response to the behaviour whilst others disregard it, the behaviours can revert back to the original negative pattern.  It might also be the case that the individual learns the difference between the staff and discriminate their responses based on who is in the area based on what has been taught by the responders.




Gross, Richard. 2001. Psychology- The Science of Mind and Behaviour. 4th Ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton Educational



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