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Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning Descriptive Essay

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Updated: Oct 12th, 2018

Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning are some of the learning theories used to explain learning processes and interaction with the environment.

Classical Conditioning assumes that the environment and our internal mental states shape our behavior (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). The internal mental states include emotions, feelings, and thoughts. For example, a person who wears perfume on a date becomes transfixed with the partner if the date was passionate. This happens when the person meet somebody who wears the same perfume.

On the other hand, Operant Conditioning explains that learning takes place when the response is controlled by the expected consequence (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). For example, when a person is fined and the license suspended for driving under the influence of alcohol, he or she becomes more careful in future and may opt to stop driving while drunk or limit his or her alcohol intake before driving. In other words, operant conditioning is a voluntary behavior and comes about as a result of a consequence.

In order to understand how Operant Conditioning and Classical Conditioning work, it is important to become familiar with some of the processes such as generalization, discrimination, extinction, and spontaneous recovery, as defined by the two theories.

In Classical Conditioning, generalization process occurs when a conditional stimuli (CS) is attached to an unconditional stimuli (US); this elicits a response (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). Again, other stimuli which differ along the same dimension as the conditional stimuli can also induce that conditional response.

The strength of the conditional response highly depends on the degree of likeness between the new stimuli and the original conditional stimuli. Through this process, we tend to relate a response with varying stimuli even without having experienced every stimulus condition.

On the other hand, generalization in Operant Conditioning means that behavior may occur in different situations. In generalization, punishment or reinforcement is the result of behavior in several antecedent settings, where the person produces the behavior in the differing circumstances (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). After learning to respond in a particular way to a stimulus, it is possible that the person or animal will respond in the same manner in the presence of a similar stimulus.

This principle can be applied by teachers to develop good behavior among learners. For example, teachers can encourage learners to queue by reminding them to do so in various situations where they are supposed to be served. The teacher has to provide discriminative stimuli to help them understand how to behave. For example, telling them to walk quietly in a single line while going for lunch. By setting conditions under which certain behavior is to be learned, the learner acquires the behavior.

Discrimination in Classical Conditioning involves a person‘s ability to sense differences in stimuli, and as a result, respond to just one similar stimuli.

This means that discrimination training involves a behavioral course targeted at achieving a conditioned response towards the particular behavior or circumstance (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). In Operant Conditioning, discrimination involves presenting punishment or reinforcement in specific antecedent stimulus conditions while ignoring others until the person only exhibits the behavior under the particular antecedent settings.

Discrimination will mostly occur when the particular response has been given some reinforcement in the presence of a single stimulus, and not in the presence of a different stimulus. In this case, the person or the learner will possibly exhibit the response just in cases where the earlier stimulus is presented.

In Classical Conditioning, extinction process refers to a situation whereby a conditional stimulus is repeatedly presented without involving unconditional stimuli.

It occurs when paring of conditional and unconditional stimuli is terminated for a number of trials, and as a result, conditional stimulus loses its ability to cause the conditional response (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). This is possible since the conditional stimulus is a neutral stimulus and when training is halted, the conditional stimulus takes up its neutral status once more.

In Operant Conditioning, extinction happens when punishment or reinforcement no longer occur as a consequence for any behavior (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). It involves ensuring that a particular response does not lead to reinforcement any more. For example, a child who always tries to seek attention through head-banging, the caretaker or the mother can strap him/her in a helmet so that he or she can no longer harm him/ herself, and as a result, quit the behavior.

Extinction may not be permanent and a phenomenon known as a spontaneous recovery may occur. This phenomenon is a conditioned response which arises after a rest period or sometimes after a time of lessened response. There is a possibility that a conditional response that had ceased to occur may suddenly reappear although no reconditioning has occurred with the unconditional stimulus.

In Operant Conditioning, Spontaneous Recovery is also possible. It happens when extinction is retested so that reacquisition quickly occurs whenever punishment or reinforcement occurs as a consequence of behavior (Gazzaniga, Halpern & Hearthton, 2009). For example, if a teacher training learners to queue stops to reinforce the learners, the behavior may still reappear if necessary.

Classical Conditioning and Operant Conditioning presented different ways of learning behavior. However, the two present almost similar processes for which behavior is acquired with the difference being in the forces which influence acquisition and response.

Reference List

Gazzaniga, M. S., Halpern, D. F., & Hearthton, T. F. (2009). Psychological science, 3rd Edition. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.

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