Learning theories: Classic Conditioning and Operative Conditioning

Learning theories: Classic Conditioning and Operative Conditioning

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Learning is not only the ability or ability to acquire knowledge, drive or know how to play tennis, but take advantage of our experiences to adapt to the world around us in an effective way. Thanks to our ability to learn, we can rectify our behavior, shape the personality, acquire social skills, manage fears or modify our beliefs and attitudes.


  • 1 What is learning?
  • 2 Classic Conditioning
  • 3 Operator Conditioning

What is learning?

Starting from the fact that the most important gift that nature has given us is that of adaptability, the ability to learn new forms of behavior that allow us to face the ever changing circumstances of life, learning would then be defined as a relatively permanent change in our behavior caused by an experience.

Hope for the future

Learning is, above all, a source of hope for the future. What we can learn now may be needed later (as parents, friends, educators ...). What at this moment conditions us may be modified with other learning that allows us to acquire new strategies, cure our anxieties or rehabilitate ourselves.

Come on, the fact that we are now unlucky in something, shy, with difficulties to be affectionate it doesn't have to last forever. So learning is the guarantee of a more balanced becoming because human beings are the ones with the greatest capacity to modify our behavior through this original tool, the only ones we can trust that today is the first day of the rest of our lives. and that we are willing to continue learning to improve.

Knowing this already in advance, we can enter to give a review of the most relevant theories on this subject and understanding it from a closer point of view, without so many technicalities, with examples that happen to all of us. Here we go.

Classic Conditioning

Suppose you are waiting for your turn in a long line at one of the boxes in the supermarket (the same one you are thinking). It is winter, the temperature outside is very low. Each time the automatic entrance door opens, a burst of cold air penetrates inside and hits you in the face. When this happens, of course, you shudder and shrink. Now, suppose that immediately before the door opens, you hear the muffled sound of the mechanism that makes it work. At first you may ignore it, but after the angry hit on your face a couple of times you will start to shudder and shrink when you hear the mechanism, before the door opens and the wind enters.

Ivan Pavlov (1849-1936), Nobel Prize for Medicine, proved in one of his experiments that if a neutral stimulus, such as food, is associated with a conditioned one, such as a bell, the animal will end up salivating when it perceives the sound of the bell even though there is no food in sight.

I. Pavlov: Classic Conditioning

The anticipation of fear

Now suppose you travel in the subway. Suddenly the lights go out and the vehicle is trapped in a tunnel between two stations. No one can leave, of course. The situation lasts long enough to trigger an anguish response in you (tremors, palpitations, chills, choking and intense fear). The subway starts up, and you get down terrified at the next station that is not yours. Since then, every time you go down the subway stairs you already have an unpleasant feeling of anxiety; if you avoid getting on the subway, you could develop a phobia of it.

A very famous example is that of little albert (in 1924). A study, unfortunately, with disastrous consequences. This study demonstrated how certain specific fears start, certain phobias. The chosen subject was an eleven-month-old boy, Albert, who, like most children, was afraid of noise but not of rats. Then they showed him a white rat, and when the poor man reached out to touch it, they struck a hammer against a steel bar behind his head. Five days later it was observed that the boy generalized his conditioned response, because he reacted in fear when he was shown a pooch, a rabbit, and even a fur coat! Interestingly, he didn't show that reaction to toys, stuffed animals or the like.


We need to distinguish between similar appearance stimuli. Take the example of an individual who daily hears the ticking of his alarm clock and the noise of his refrigerator thermostat. The sounds reproduced by his watch are invariably accompanied by another strong and annoying alarm clock, so it does not take long to get us to emit conditioned responses (reactions of annoyance or even moderate anxiety). This will not happen with the refrigerator and the end result will be that the person will gradually acquire the ability to discriminate relatively similar stimuli very accurately.

As generalization, discrimination is valuable for survival. Slightly different stimuli follow very different consequences; and this allows adaptation. Our heart may startle at an unexpected rocket noise, but remain indifferent to hearing traffic noise.

The extinction process

If we lacked a mechanism to suppress reactions that are no longer reliable indications of the occurrence of conditioning phenomena, we would quickly be bales loaded with useless conditioned reactions. Fortunately, we have a means to eliminate this kind of reactions: the extinction process.

Each time a previously conditioned stimulus (the famous bell) occurs if the unconditioned stimulus with which it was associated before (food), its ability to elicit conditioned responses weakens until it disappears completely. We can only avoid this inexorable end if, from time to time, we "remember" the initial situation (providing the food).

Spontaneous recovery

This occurs when the same conditioned stimulus, after a rest period, comes back later, provoking the response that had been conditioned by that same stimulus.

In the beginning, then, extinction slows the conditioned response, rather than eliminating it. More “disconnections” will be needed between the conditioned and the unconditioned stimulus so that the time for the definitive cessation of spontaneous recovery comes. This process causes us to continue reacting with anguish to words "exam" long after finishing our academic activity, that fears or phobias bother us again when we thought we were already cured or that we feel again the "bug" of the tobacco or alcohol, despite having freed us, in theory of them. These examples of everyday life are subject to other factors (addictions, personality, strength of certain stimuli, etc.), however spontaneous recovery is a very valuable discovery to understand many things that happen to us in our coming and going from one learning to another.

The Operating Conditioning

During the years that you have gone to school, to university or even to some course, you must have had contact with dozens of teachers and professors. Some of them will probably have been very strict, while others would have preferred to reward appropriate intellectual behaviors rather than punish the wrong ones, that is, with the intention of inciting small achievements, step by step, paying more attention to positive attitudes.

Students who "survived" the first system will have been able to acquire a "competitive" and very rigorous sense, with which their background to the constant challenges of academic life will be useful a priori. But they will also have developed more anxiety than desirable and some will express aversion to the method and even everything that sounds like "pedagogy."

The other group of teachers will have earned a warm place in the hearts of the students; but affection for a teacher does not necessarily guarantee basic skills learning necessary to adapt to future adverse situations.

Punishments and rewards

This example of everyday life shows us how we move in a constant sway of rewards (those we seek daily) and punishments (which we intend to avoid), which guide our most complex behaviors. We have already seen how classical conditioning links neutral stimuli with simple and involuntary responses. But how do we learn other more varied and voluntary forms of behavior? It is one thing to teach the kitten to salivate when he hears the bag of croquettes or a child to fear the vehicles on the street, and another very different thing is that a bear learns to dance (even if it is slowly, like many humans) a rumba or that A child learn English.

Many of these functions are reserved for another type of learning that is responsible for instilling these forms of behavior. Its about instrumental or operant conditioning, whereby a subject is more likely to repeat award-winning behaviors and less to continue with punished forms of behavior.

Actions always have consequences of one kind or another. For example, saying “I love you” to someone will give a very different result than expected if the phrase is stuttered.

In conclusion, there is a direct and important connection between the actions we execute and the consequences that result from them. And this is the process that forms the operant conditioning, because the act operates on the environment to obtain compensatory or positive stimuli.


  • Learning and adaptive capacity (2007). In Encyclopedia of Psychology (Vol. 2, 77-92 pp). Spain: Ocean.
  • Domjan, M. (2012).Principles of learning and behavior. (5th edition) Madrid: Paraninfo.