Classical vs. Operant Conditioning: Differences and Benefits

By Indeed Editorial Team

Published June 2, 2022

The Indeed Editorial Team comprises a diverse and talented team of writers, researchers and subject matter experts equipped with Indeed's data and insights to deliver useful tips to help guide your career journey.

Human psychology plays an integral role in a range of business functions, like workforce management and marketing. Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are two essential psychology concepts that can help businesses influence consumer and employee behaviour. Learning more about these concepts can help you understand how they're applicable in business. In this article, we define classical vs. operant conditioning, discuss their differences, explain the benefits of each, and describe their business uses with examples.

Classical vs. operant conditioning

Learning the differences between classical vs. operant conditioning can help you understand their business benefits. Classical conditioning is a concept in behavioural psychology that links a neutral stimulus to an involuntary response. For example, consider that you ring a bell every time you put food down for your dog. Over time, the sound of the bell itself, which is a neutral stimulus, can evoke an involuntary response from the dog, like salivation.

Operant conditioning is another behavioural psychology concept. It involves modifying behaviour that arises from the association between a voluntary behaviour and its consequence. For instance, think of dogs that get a treat after they fetch and return a ball. The voluntary behaviour of fetching and returning the ball becomes associated with the consequence of getting a treat. This type of conditioning approach can be used to positively reinforce desired behaviours.

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Differences between classical vs. operant conditioning

Here are some prominent differences between classical and operant conditioning:

Occurrence of stimuli

In classical conditioning, the stimulus comes before the behaviour, whereas in operant conditioning, the voluntary behaviour occurs first. This is then positively or negatively reinforced by creating an association between the behaviour and its consequence. In the example of feeding a dog with a bell, the neutral stimulus of the bell results in the involuntary behaviour or response, which is salivation. In contrast, the behaviour of fetching the ball in operant conditioning is voluntary and takes place before the action of the dog getting a reward, which is a positive consequence.

Nature of response

Classical conditioning deals with involuntary responses or behaviour, whereas operant conditioning deals with voluntary behaviour. Salivation isn't a voluntary behaviour, as dogs can't willfully choose when they salivate. Alternatively, dogs can choose to fetch the ball or not, which is a voluntary action that they can control.

A neutral stimulus gets linked to an involuntary response in classical conditioning. Comparatively, in operant conditioning, a voluntary behaviour gets paired with a resulting consequence. The neutral stimulus in classical conditioning may be entirely unrelated to the involuntary response. In operant conditioning, you can positively or negatively reinforce certain behaviours by linking them to a consequence.


Russian psychologist Ivan Petrovich Pavlov put forth classical conditioning as a concept through his behavioural experiments involving conditioned reflexes in dogs. Pavlov conditioned his dogs to show an involuntary reflex, salivation, by linking the neutral stimulus, the sound of a buzzer, to the provision of food.

In contrast, B. F. Skinner pioneered operant conditioning. He was an American psychologist who used operant boxes in his experiments with rats and pigeons. The animals pressed the lever to get food, which represented positive reinforcement. There was also a lever that had a negative reinforcement, such as a loud noise, high temperature, or electric shock. After conditioning, animals stopped pressing the lever that had the negative reinforcement. Before Skinner, Edward L. Thorndike observed and generalized similar findings in the principle he theorized as "law of effect."

Degree of control

In classical conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus is under the experimenter's control. In contrast, the subject controls the unconditioned stimulus in the case of operant conditioning, as they choose to do it. The unconditioned stimulus here is simply the trigger that causes an unconditional or natural response in the subject.

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Benefits of classical conditioning

Here are some benefits of classical conditioning:

Reducing harmful behaviour

Classical conditioning can help reduce destructive or harmful behaviours. By removing the environmental trigger associated with certain harmful behaviours, classical conditioning can help remove the involuntary desire to indulge in those behaviours. Different types of behavioural therapies, such as aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, and flooding, use the principles of classical conditioning.

Increasing positive traits

Classical conditioning can be used to introduce more positive behaviours in everyday life. You can condition involuntary reflexes to produce positive behaviours by modifying the environment to contain stimuli that result in these positive reflexes. For example, when a parent makes turns homework into a fun and engaging activity, a child may develop a connection between playing a fun game and doing homework. Over time, they may start feeling good while doing homework.

Treating phobias

Classical conditioning can help with the treatment of phobias or irrational fears. By positively and repeatedly changing the environment in which an individual is exposed to their phobia, the severity of negative emotions may diminish. With repetition over time, classical conditioning can help reduce the influence of stimuli to cause fear. This can help therapists address irrational fears that cause stress or anxiety.

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Benefits of operant conditioning

Here are some benefits of operant conditioning:

Reinforcing positive learning

Operant conditioning can help create effective learning systems. This is especially true for children or animals developing habits at a young age. For example, you can train your dog to follow your instructions and reward them with a treat to reinforce that behaviour. Parents can also use learning to encourage positive traits in children, such as honesty. For instance, when children display this positive trait, parents can praise them and make them feel proud. This approach may result in children demonstrating honesty because they can expect the reward of praise from parents.

Quitting destructive habits

Operant conditioning is another effective method of influencing the tendency to indulge in destructive habits. By associating a harmful behaviour with an undesirable or negative consequence, operant conditioning can help reduce or eliminate them. Alternatively, you can associate a positive result with avoiding a harmful habit to reduce its occurrence.

Influencing behaviour

Operant conditioning offers several ways to influence behaviour. You can positively reinforce a behaviour by either removing a negative consequence or adding a positive consequence. In contrast, you can negatively reinforce a behaviour by removing a positive consequence or adding a negative one.

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Uses of classical conditioning in business

Here are common business uses of classical conditioning:

Forming brand associations

The primary use case of classical conditioning in business is to create an association between an involuntary response in consumers to a product. This helps increase customer engagement, even if there's no direct relationship between the reflex and the product. For example, many sports drink brands consciously associate their brand with adventure, even though there's no direct connection between the two.

Marketing and advertising

Classical conditioning can be used in marketing campaigns to showcase a brand's added value by pairing products or services with a suitable neutral stimulus. While the stimulus may not be directly related to the product or service, consistently marketing the association can encourage consumers to experience a positive involuntary connection. For instance, advertisements for beauty products often feature famous actors, while sports drinks commercials may use popular athletes as their brand ambassadors.

Creating product associations

Classical conditioning can also help create desirable associations between two unrelated products. For example, a company that manufactures chocolate can start offering a free toy with every purchase. This may boost demand for the company's chocolate as more parents start purchasing it to receive a free toy for their children.

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Uses of operant conditioning in business

Here are some common ways that businesses use operant conditioning:

Regulating employee behaviour

Operant conditioning can help management reward or punish certain employee behaviours. For example, a team manager can choose to encourage innovation in the team by promoting members who display creativity and problem-solving skills. Similarly, they can penalize coming late to the office with a reduction in salary to help ensure everyone arrives at the workplace on time.

Designing user experience

In interactive media, such as video games, operant conditioning can help develop the right incentives to encourage gamers to keep playing and reach the next level. The right balance of bonus points or tokens, which act as positive reinforcement, and obstacles or challenges, which act as negative reinforcement, can help engage gamers effectively. The same principle applies when designing user interfaces and journeys in websites, applications, and other digital software to keep users engaged.

Influencing buyer decisions

Businesses can also leverage operant conditioning. For instance, they can incentivize consumers through positive reinforcements, such as offers, coupons, and discounts. By showing them the reward associated with making a specific purchase, businesses can positively reinforce buying behaviour. As another example, a company can offer customers an exclusive discount to encourage them to join a loyalty club.

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