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Operant and Respondent Conditioning: Differences and Examples


A crucial component of behavioral analysis is the exploration of different types of learning. Operant conditioning (OC) and respondent conditioning (RC) are to be mastered by behavior analysis since these learning types allow teaching new behaviors with the help of specific stimuli. While OC and RC are two variants of learning, they have more divergent than common features. The paper will discuss these differences and offer examples of OC and RC.

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Operant conditioning presupposes a link between the behavior and consequences, which means that one’s behavior is affected by the stimulus that one receives. Further, depending on the received stimulus, the frequency of behavior increases (with reward) or decreases (with punishment) (Pierce & Cheney, 2017). Respondent conditioning happens when an unconditioned stimulus is combined with a previously neutral stimulus to affect behavior (Cooper, Heron, & Heward, 2019). RC is also called classical conditioning, and it is most frequently associated with the Russian physiologist, Pavlov.

Similarities and Differences between OC and RC

The main similarity between the two types of conditioning is that they both result in learning. However, the mechanisms of the two processes are quite different. Specifically, each behavior deals with a different kind of response (Cooper et al., 2019). While RC focuses on involuntary behavior, OC concentrates on increasing or decreasing voluntary behaviors. Additionally, the stimuli employed in each conditioning type are not the same. In RC, an antecedent signal is used, while in OC, reinforcement or punishment is utilized after a behavior.

Examples of OC

Example 1

I punished my cat every time she missed her litter box by not giving her fish, which is her favorite food, after such occasions. The cat learned that if she wanted to receive the treat, she had to behave well. Hence, she formed an association between keeping the floor clean and receiving food (punishment). That way, an association between the stimulus and behavior was formed.

Example 2

Every time my neighbor left his car parked in the wrong spot, someone kicked it to make the siren system work. After several occasions, the neighbor realized that if he left the car that way, his car would be damaged, and the unpleasant noise would irritate people, including himself. The negative stimulus (siren) made the neighbor decrease his behavior with the aim of avoiding punishment.

Examples of RC

Example 1

On her way home from school, always at about 2 p.m., my niece passed a house in the yard of which a puppy was playing. The puppy was joyful and always ran toward the gate when it saw the girl. Our neighbor said that when my niece got ill and had been missing school for a week, the puppy ran toward the gate every day at 2 p.m. anyway. The unconditioned stimulus for the puppy is running toward the gate, while the previously neutral one is seeing the girl. Gradually, even without the neutral stimulus, the unconditional one triggers the puppy’s running.

Example 2

When I bought a new frying pan, I got my hand burned by oil several times when cooking. After those incidents, I used to close my eyes every time when I opened the frying pan to avoid a burn. I have noticed that when I visit someone, and they are cooking, I close my eyes every time they open the lid even if it is not me who is standing close to the stove. My reaction is OC since an unconditioned stimulus (opening the hot pan) is combined with a previously neutral stimulus (cooking) and results in my closing the eyes even when the unconditioned stimulus in not present.

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Despite differences between OC and RC, both of these types of learning are important in behavior analysis. The two types of learning can be utilized to train a particular behavior, as well as change it. RC concentrates on involuntary behavior, whereas OC focuses on voluntary actions. Since both of these behavior types are of interest in behavior analysis, one should be aware of their peculiarities in order to be able to apply them in practice.


Cooper, J. O., Heron, T. E., & Heward, W. L. (2019). Applied behavior analysis (3rd ed.). Essex, England: Pearson.

Pierce, W. D., & Cheney, C. D. (2017). Behavior analysis and learning: A biobehavioral approach (6th ed.). New York, NY: Routledge.

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