Learned behaviors are a classical subject of behavioral psychology that attempts to understand how behaviors are acquired and established. Pavlov’s classical conditioning focused on involuntary stimulus and responses and Skinner’s operant conditioning centered around changing responses to stimuli through subsequent consequences are both prominent behavioral theories. This paper explores the origins and foundations of both theories, going in-depth on their functions. A comparison is made between Pavlov’s classical conditioning and Skinner’s operant conditioning in the areas of their underlying mechanisms, behavioral implications, and real-world applications.
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Learned behaviors are a classical subject of behavioral psychology that attempts to understand how behaviors are acquired and established. The two theorists who pioneered well-known theories in this specialization are Ivan Pavlov who studied classical conditioning and B.F. Skinner coined operant conditioning. These key concepts have been vital to the growth of behavioral science as well as the topic of significant debates.
Both theories are relevant not only in the field of psychology but have been put into application in various other sectors. Pavlov’s classical conditioning which associates an involuntary response with a stimulus and Skinner’s operant condition that ties a voluntary behavior to a consequence are both behavior modification techniques that result in learning but differ significantly in their approaches to the process.
Pavlov’s Classical Conditioning
Ivan Pavlov was a Russian physiologist who worked in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. He is known for identifying classical conditioning, a process that forms an association between a naturally existing stimulus and a neutral stimulus. Most people are familiar with Pavlov’s dog experiment where he drew inspiration for the principle. As a physiologist, Pavlov noticed that dogs began to salivate when hearing a sound associated with feeding times.
The salivation occurred even before the food was presented. Pavlov determined this was a learned response that stipulated the conditioning process. Salivation is a response to food is a naturally occurring unconditioned response. Biological beings have little conscious control over salivation as it is instinctual and does not need to be trained. However, a sound associated with food is a neutral stimulus since it is not the food itself, but simply an indicator that it is coming. After repeated exposure, the sound becomes a conditioned stimulus, while salivation becomes a conditioned response (Myers & DeWall, 2016).
Skinner’s Operant Conditioning
B.F. Skinner was an American psychologist, behaviorist, and social philosopher working in the mid-20th century. He is known for building on Pavlov’s classical conditioning research and identifying what is known as operant (also known as instrumental) conditioning. This type of conditioning focuses on changes to voluntary behavior which is followed by either reinforcement or punishment. In theory, behavior followed by reinforcement will increase and continue, while punishment to behavior will result in its decrease and cessation. Reinforcement can be either positive where a positive reward is added, or negative, where an undesirable aspect is removed.
Negative reinforcement is different from punishment since it results in the removal of a negative consequence to increase response, meaning to increase it. While punishment is the reverse, in positive punishment, a negative aspect is added, while in negative punishment, a pleasing element is removed. Operant conditioning is inherently more complex and challenging since it deals with a voluntary behavior and seeks to establish specific consequences, through this making changes to old behaviors and creating new ones (Myers & DeWall, 2016).
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While both classical and operant conditioning focus on learned behaviors and how to change them, the two differ significantly in their underlying approaches. Classical conditioning relies on pairing an unconditioned stimulus to an unconditioned response through a neutral stimulus. The unconditioned aspect refers that no learning taking place to connect this stimulus and natural response. For example, a favorite food (unconditioned stimulus) stimulates happiness (unconditioned response). However, the presence of a plate on the table signifying the arrival of a favorite food is a neutral stimulus. At first, the plate elicits no reaction.
However, as food is placed on the plate continuously, pairing the food and the plate, it becomes a conditioned stimulus, eliciting happiness (a conditioned response). With time, one learns to associate both the plate and the food with happiness. Many everyday actions can be traced to basic needs which often operate under classical conditioning.
Building on this example, operant conditioning attempts to change the behavior, with consequences coming after the behavior varying. This is used to build a habit. By not doing a task, one removes a pleasurable experience, by doing it, one receives a reward. In other cases, punishment is used, such as a child receiving extra chores for throwing a tantrum. By behaving poorly, the chores stack up as unpleasurable experiences, by behaving well, a child may be given fewer chores that day and more playtime.
The underlying process for operant conditioning focuses on influencing behavior through consequence and therefore, changing it. While classical conditioning is used solely for forming a response to a stimulus, without necessarily considering it as positive or negative. Classical conditioning is usually based on involuntary or subconscious responses, while operant conditioning pivots on the whole concept of changing a voluntary action (Commons & Giri, 2016).
Psychological Behavioral Implications
Psychological behavioral implications from Pavlov’s and Skinner’s conditioning techniques are complex, sharing similarities and differences that should be explored. The classical conditioning theory is simple, because it had enduring relevance to psychology by describing an essential phenomenon which helps humans to adapt to their environments. It involves a set of essential psychological processes including emotion, memory, and motivation. The simplicity of classical conditioning is deliberate as to focus on a singular stimuli and response. This has significant cognitive implications as it drives fundamental reactions and subconscious behavior that have formed due to association in the mind (Eelen, 2018).
Meanwhile, Skinner believed that classical conditioning was too simplistic to fully explain complex human behavior. He viewed it as necessary to examine the cause of the action and its consequences. It is Skinner which introduced the term reinforcement of behavior in the Law of Effect. He argued that cognitively, behavior can be reinforced to strengthen it repetition, or the opposite in order to weaken it. Therefore, this has significant implications by essentially allowing psychological manipulation of self and others to derive desirable behaviors. Although the controlled behavior is voluntary, the resulting formed habits can be considered involuntary since individuals are conditioned to respond or behave in a certain manner (Blackman, 2017).
Having been established as prominent behavioral theories, Pavlov’s and Skinner’s works have found practical applications in various fields, which will be compared in this section. Classical conditioning is more straightforward and although it was tested on animals, it can be applicable to humans. It sees significant use in therapeutic interventions as a successful form of treatment for substance abuse. Various types of therapies have been developed around the condition with the purpose of changing behavior. For example, aversion behavior therapy encourages individuals to give up undesirable habits through association with a negative effect.
Systematic desensitization is used to treat phobias by exposing individuals progressively to provoking stimuli. Flooding is also a form of desensitization leading to exposure to distressing stimuli until anxiety disappears due to lack of reinforcement. Classical conditioning is also used in sectors such as advertising through the application of principles of associative learning. By associating a pleasant experience (such as seeing an attractive model) in an advertisement, an individual sees the object of advertisement as desirable, receiving higher ratings and potentially higher sales in comparison to a highly similar product without any association (Lumen, n.d.a.). These aspects build on the classical conditioning principles which capitalize on conditioned involuntary responses.
Operant conditioning has also a profound number of uses in various industries. Similarly, to classical conditioning, it is used in therapeutic interventions, particularly in treating addiction and drug dependence in which positive and negative reinforcement play central roles. It is also the foundation of applied behavior analysis developed by Skinner himself which focuses on modification of social human behavior, a popular technique used in psychiatry. Furthermore, operant conditioning has been strongly implemented in education and child development, focused on reinforcements of appropriate child behavior and new skills.
Operant conditioning is such a widely applied concept that it began to be used in fields where human behavior is highly relevant such as economics, defining the behavior of consumers in the marketplace. Similarly, to the use of advertising in classical conditioning, operant conditioning has been adapted to commercial purposes, using psychological manipulation in various media to drive consumerism (Lumen, n.d.b). Finally, it has been used in leadership and management by involving operant conditioning and applying it to workplace performance.
Pavlov’s classical conditioning focused on involuntary stimulus and responses and Skinner’s operant conditioning centered around changing responses to stimuli through subsequent consequences are both prominent behavioral theories. Although different in a number of aspects such as underlying principles and behavioral implications, they share similar foundations of human response to stimuli and behavioral changes. Some debate exists between the two, but the two theories are interrelated and contribute in different ways to fields of psychology, behavioral science, childhood development, and a range of other sectors.
Blackman, D. E. (2017). Operant conditioning: An experimental analysis of behavior. Routledge.
Commons, M. L., & Giri, S. (2016). Account of operant conditioning based on coordinating three procedural steps of respondent conditioning processes. Behavioral Development Bulletin, 21(1), 14-32. Web.
Eelen, P. (2018). Classical conditioning: Classical yet modern. Psychological Belgica, 58(1), 196-211. Web.
Lumen. (n.d.a). Classical conditioning. Web.
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Lumen. (n.d.b). Operant conditioning. Web.
Myers, D.G., & DeWall, C.N. (2016). Exploring psychology (10th ed.). Worth Publishers.