Thursday, March 09, 2006

Psychology 101 Essay: Classical and Operant Conditioning

Note: This essay was done in a scramble to put something together for grading.

Joe, a five year old boy who didn’t regularly brush his teeth as a child went to the dentist. Unfortunately for him he was diagnosed with four cavities which had to be filled immediately. The dentist walks up to the dental chair where Joe waited and tells him “you have four cavities little boy.” After some prep work the dentist drilled into John’s teeth and made a distinctive high pitched screech. Less than a minute later Joe clenched the arms of the dental chair and started whimpering. After it was all done Joe’s mother said to him “If you Brush your teeth and stop drinking soda you won’t have cavities next time.”

After a week Joe is brushing his teeth religiously and rarely gives into the temptation of drinking a Coke. During his next dental appointment Joe is nervously waiting for his turn in the dentist chair and hears the signature screech of the drill he knows all too well. Joe cringes and whimpers like he did when the dentist drilled out his cavities last time. It’s his turn and Joe slowly walks to his chair. The dentist walks in and tells Joe “All your hard work paid off, no cavities this time, we’ll just do some cleaning and you can go home.”

Joe’s response to the dentist’s drill and his newfound zeal for brushing his teeth illustrates the learning process. It’s defined by psychologists as “a process through which experience produces a lasting change in behavior or mental processes.” Joe’s case demonstrates two key types of learning known as operant and classical conditioning. The main difference between classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that classical conditioning involves a neutral stimulus like light and noises that elicit involuntary reflexes like eye blinking and salivation, whereas operant conditioning involves an operant or voluntary behavior engaged in by an animal that is discouraged or encouraged by reinforcers.

Classical conditioning requires an unconditioned stimulus (UCS), an unconditioned response (UCR), or something that always causes an uncontrollable reflex. In operant conditioning a UCS is linked to a conditional stimulus (CS). This link produces a conditioned response (CR) which is essentially the same thing as UCR except that it can now be provoked by a formerly neutral stimulus. The discovery of classical conditioning is credited to Ivan Pavlov who found that a dog would salivate upon hearing the steps of the person that fed him without the presentation of food.

The basis of operant conditioning was founded by a psychologist named Edward Thorndike who documented how hungry animals would work diligently to earn a food reward, which he called the law of effect. This type of learning encourages or discourages consciously made decisions or behavior by the use of consequences in the form of positive or negative reinforcers. (In this case positive and negative refer to the mathematical sense of the words which denote addition or subtraction of stimuli rather than pleasant and unpleasant stimuli.)


There key differences in acquisition between classical and operant conditioning are: classical conditioning pairs a previously neutral stimulus with an unconditional stimulus before or during the UCR and is always paired with an old behavior; operant conditioning attempts to elicit new behavior through use of reinforcers.Joe’s dental experience demonstrates the acquisition of both operant and classical conditioning. Classical conditioning took place when he associated pain; (the unconditional stimulus) was paired with the whirring of a dental drill (the conditional stimulus). His response to the UCS was a typical response to pain (whimpering, clenching of teeth and fists), which we can label the UCR. It is important to note that the whirring of the drill came before and while he was crying. The end result is a conditioned response, one that can be provoked with the mere sound of a drill. Operant conditioning took place when Joe realized that the consequence of not brushing his teeth and drinking soda was a painful trip to the dentist. In this situation brushing teeth and drinking soda is the behavior, getting his teeth drilled was a positive reinforcer, meaning a consequence was applied for his failure to brush his teeth and drinking soda. On his subsequent visit to the dentist a negative reinforcer was used, in this case his teeth weren’t drilled, sparing him considerable pain, encouraging him to continue his good dental hygienic habits. It can be said that the behavior came before the stimulus because his brushing and drinking habits came before his trip to the dentist.


Generalization occurs when a stimulus similar to a CS is provokes a CR. Going back to Joe’s example, Joe could potentially begin reacting to noises that produce sounds similar to a dental drill like the screech of a buzz saw or the sound of a regular drill. Joe might also begin associating other sweet drinks like Sprite or chocolate milk with the cause of cavities and start avoiding them also.


Extinction means that the learned reaction to a stimulus is lost. To extinguish a conditional response in classical conditioning the conditional stimulus must be presented without the unconditional stimulus. Joe’s fear of dental drills will probably go away if he keeps up his good habits and doesn’t get anymore cavities. As he goes to the dentist, hears the drill, and isn’t drilled himself, his UCS will become extinct. However, if in spite of Joe’s good habits he still gets cavities, Joe’s model dental hygienic routine will probably begin to fade. The essential difference between extinction in classical conditioning and operant conditioning is that the stimulus must be presented in a benign way whereas operant conditioning must completely withhold a stimulus.

Spontaneous Recovery

Let’s say that Joe is now 16 and has not been to the dentist for 5 years and his conditional response to the sound of a dental drill is extinct. A friend asks him for a ride to the dental office where he received his first fillings. After walking in, sitting down, and picking up a magazine he hears the dentist drill, causing him to slightly jump and clench the arms of his chair. This is called spontaneous recovery, because although the CR has long been extinct, it spontaneously reappeared in Joe 5 years later. Let’s also say that Joe keeps taking his friend to the dentist once every six months and his CR becomes extinct soon after he leaves the dental office, the next time he goes, that CR can be spontaneously recovered, but it will be weaker. Similarly, in operant conditioning, if a stimulus is completely withheld, like in Joe’s case, it doesn’t matter if he brushes his teeth or drinks soda because he doesn’t go to the dentist anymore. However, he still may choose not to drink soda and brush his teeth more often out of habit simply because he is used to doing it, something known as the “mere exposure effect.”

Operant and classical conditioning while similar, maintain several fundamental differences as well as similarities. They differ where Classical conditioning requires a stimulus to be presented with or during a response, and only links a CS with an old UCR and operant conditioning, introduces a stimulus after behavior and encourages new behavior. They are similar to each other in that they are both forms of learning, their responses can both be extinguished and spontaneously recovered.


Anonymous said...

that was lovley article but it was way way way too long!!! gosh do you people think that i have all day just to sit around and read your articles!! that pisses me off!! lol just kidding =]

Anonymous said...


tiara2015 said...

Dear Johnny, this is a very well written artile. Would you please give me the references that you used in writing this? My yahoo id is the same as my google blogger name. Do contact me. I would greatly appreciate your help. By the way, where are you doing your psychology course? Thanks.

tiara2015 said...


salempeacock said...

Hey! That was a wonderful explanation. You are a good teacher.

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