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Study Notes

Similarities and Differences Between Classical and Operant Conditioning

AS, A-Level
AQA, Edexcel, OCR, IB

Last updated 22 Mar 2021

Classical and operant conditioning are both similar because they involve making association between behaviour and events in an organism’s environment and are governed by several general laws of association - for example, it is easier to associate stimuli that are similar to each other and that occur at similar times. However there are several important differences.

These include:

  • In CC, the response is a reflex and involuntary. In OC, the response is voluntary behaviour.
  • In CC, the stimulus is new to the animal. In OC, the behaviour is new to the animal.
  • In CC, the reflex (response) follows the stimulus. In OC, the behaviour (response) precedes the reward or punishment (stimulus).
  • In CC, association occurs whether the stimulus is pleasurable or aversive. In OC pleasurable reward leads to repetition while aversion leads to extinction.
  • In CC, strength of conditioning is measured by speed or amount of response. In OC, strength is measured by rate of production of behaviour.

Strengths of the Behaviourist Approach

Behaviourism provides simple, easily testable predictions about behaviour. For example, the effect of reinforcement on behaviour can be easily quantified.

Treatments based on classical or operant conditioning have been effective in treating some disorders. For example, systematic desensitisation can be used to treat Phobias (Wolpe, 1958).

Behaviourism played a key role in making psychology more scientific. For example, most researchers now accept that laboratory experiments with measurable variables are the best form of research.

Limitations of the Behaviourist Approach

Behaviourism’s assumption of a general process of learning does not account for biological predispositions. For example, it is easier to learn phobias of some objects than others (Seligman, 1971).

Behaviourism's assumption that learning takes place through gradual S-R association cannot explain how animals can learn without reinforcement. Tolman & Honzik (1930) showed that rats could learn maps of mazes without operant conditioning.

Behaviourism finds it difficult to explain how humans construct new solutions to problems. For example, children can generate the plural forms of nouns they have never encountered before and could not have learned (Berko, 1958).

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