Comparing classical and operant conditioning

There are many similarities between the two types of conditioning, including extinction and spontaneous recovery. However, there are significant differences, such as classical conditioning being a passive process whereas operant conditioning is active. The table below summarises the comparisons:

Classical conditioning: Operant conditioning:
New behaviours are acquired by associative learning. New behaviours are acquired by associative learning.
Behaviours may become extinct... Behaviours may become extinct...
... and spontaneously recover. ... and spontaneously recover.
Stimulus generalisation and discrimination occur. Stimulus generalisation and discrimination occur.
Based on involuntary reflex behaviour. Based on voluntary behaviour.
Learner is the object of experience (passive learning). Learner is the subject of experience (active learning).
Effectiveness of conditioning assessed by size of response. Effectiveness of conditioning assessed by frequency of response.
  1. Behaviourism does not see innate behaviours as significant. Animals have a predisposition to perform some behaviours over others (theory of preparedness) and so will learn some behaviours more readily than others.

  2. The reduction of learning to stimulus-response associations is an oversimplification. Learning is more about understanding the relationships between events in the environment.

    This notion is supported by Rescorla (1968), who demonstrated that conditioning is most effective when the CS is a reliable predictor of the UCS. Higher-order conditioning and secondary reinforcers also suggests that learning is not a straight forward stimulus-response connection.

  3. Learning does not necessarily involve measurable responses. A null response does not mean that learning has not occurred.

  4. Alternative explanations of learning include social learning (discussed in the next QuickLearn) and the cognitive approach. Tolman's (1948) latent learning theory explains learning in terms of mental or cognitive maps.

    He observed that rats learn their environment (a maze in his experiments) in the absence of reinforcement. This latent learning is only expressed when reinforcement is introduced resulting in excellent performance.

  5. Learning in humans may involve conditioning (good evidence comes from phobia acquisition) but it may not be valid to generalise the behaviour of non-human animals to humans.

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