Behaviourism Essay: Classical & Operant Conditioning


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Behaviourism Essay: Classical & Operant Conditioning

Essay on Behaviourism: Introduction

Behaviourism is the theory that human and animal psychology can be determined by examining only observable and apparent behaviours. Today, counsellors use two prominent approaches to the field of behaviourism. These two approaches are being used to create change. The first one is the classical conditioning theory of Dr Ivan Pavlov, and the second one is the operant conditioning theory of Dr Burrhus Frederic Skinner. To explain and discuss these two theories, this paper defines both, evaluates both modalities' advantages and disadvantages and finally, explores how these two models are applied in counselling. Both theories explain people's behaviour from different perspectives. It can be deduced that both lack specific attributes, but also, both are critical and helpful for behaviourist therapists to help people.

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First, we will define the classical conditioning theory of Dr Pavlov. It refers to the process that occurs before learning and that results in a response by pairing; it is also called respondent conditioning (Corey, 2017). It is well known that his experiment dependent heavily on his dogs. Dogs drool when they are given food. This is respondent behaviour. If given a neutral stimulus, a bell in Pavlov's case, dogs do not show any specific reaction. However, when repeatedly given food after they heard the bell, dogs displayed salivation for the bell's sound alone (Corey 2017). This can be understood as Pavlov's theory is an automatic learning process. Rehman et al. (2020) explain, "Classical conditioning is the process in which an automatic, conditioned response is paired with specific stimuli." (para.1). It is an unconscious way of learning as an automatic response can be taken as an innate reflex by triggering a particular stimulus. One example of classical conditioning would be; A mother is putting her baby in a baby carriage before taking the baby outside. After repeating this, the baby correlates the baby carriage with going out. In this example, a baby carriage is a conditioned stimulus. Every time the baby is put in his carriage, he will respond like he will be taken outside. This instance is a basic example of how humans learn certain behaviours.

The second modality is the operant conditioning theory of Dr Skinner. Operant conditioning is a form of learning in which behaviours are primarily conditioned by their effects (Corey, 2017). It is also called "instrumental conditioning". Skinner's work was innovative, but his work's roots were Thorndike's "law of effect". He trapped a rat inside a box which is called "Skinner Box". In this setup, every time the rat used the lever in the box, it got food. Skinner (1963) explain this as "The organism uses a response to gain an effect." (p.505). That means the rat learned that if he uses a lever, it will earn food. Consequently, it will display that behaviour more and more because he learned that the environmental change, in this case getting a piece of pellet, is positive. This positive change is called reinforcement. Similarly, if the environmental change is not present or results in a negative stimulus, that behaviour will most likely be lessened (Corey, 2017).

However, a critical element here is the rate of response. How frequently the organism displays the said behaviour depends on the pace of the reinforcement (gain) and the punishment (aversive stimuli). When Skinner altered the time of the food reinforcement from 3 to 9 minutes, he found out that the behaviour rate decreased if the time is increased (McSweeney & Murphy, 2014). It can be understood that in operant conditioning, behaviour is reversible. It is possible to say that in this type of conditioning, the result is not a reflex; the organism is more decisive. A basic example for operant conditioning from McSweeney & Murphy (2014) "If a person places his/her hand in a hot stove, they will get burned. As a result, they will be less likely to repeat this behaviour." (p.172).

Both modalities have strengths and also some arguable attributes. McLeod (2018) defines positive and negative sides of classical conditioning; First, classical conditioning highlights environment-based learning. Also, it is scientific as it is based on controlled experiments. Classical conditioning shows a reductionist explanation. This means that the behaviour is explained by breaking it into smaller stimulus-response units. However, it also has weaknesses such as; It supports nurture over nature, but by doing so, it cannot define complex human behaviour that is unlike animal behaviours. Plus, the reductionist approach may lack legitimacy as it can be inadequate because, as its definition, it doesn't take the whole into account. Lastly, classical conditioning is deterministic, which means that the organism has no control over its behaviour (McLeod, 2018). It may not be evident by experimenting with animals, but human individuals are unique, and they have the free will to decide their behaviours. Classical conditioning strictly defines how the individual will behave.

For operant conditioning, it can be used to define many human behaviours such as verbal behaviour (language), drug addictions or education. It is also beneficial for everyday use, such as prisons and schools, because it is practical (McLeod 2018). It motivates certain wanted behaviours and demotivation for unwanted ones. However, operant conditioning doesn't account for cognitive factors; therefore, it is incomplete (McLeod 2018). According to Jensen & Burgess (1997), behaviourists saw people's thoughts and feelings as just another behaviour to be explained. Plus, its function may be halted in application on people as people could present wanted behaviour just when they get reinforcement and abandon the behaviour when they are unmonitored.

In addition to defining human behaviour, these concepts are being applied in today's counselling and therapy. First, they can be applied to lessen the undesirable behaviour of the patient. By using classical condition, for example, an alcoholic patient may quit alcohol by correlating alcohol with nausea. The patient is given alcohol and after emetics. Emetics induce nausea. The patient relates alcohol with nausea. Aversive stimulation can also be used to get the same result, that is, operant conditioning. The patient is given an electric shock with a taste of alcohol. Therefore, he will correlate the punishment with alcohol, and it is less likely to occur. However, the aversive method is clinically proven to be less effective (Follette & Dalto, 2015).

Besides, wanted behavior can be increased by using operant conditioning. Certain behaviours can be increased by positive reinforcement, meaning that said behavior has added value and the desired result for the patient, such as food, money, etc. The same goes for the negative reinforcement technique. If the client presents an unwanted behavior, it can be decreased by making that behavior result in a negative stimulus for the client (Corey, 2017). A negative result might be a punishment or the lack of a positive stimulus, such as forbidding a child from going out if he shows an unwanted behaviour.

Moreover, systematic desensitization based on classical conditioning can be used to desensitize patients with fear of phobias or anxiety. Follette and Dalto (2015) explain, "a relaxation response is trained in advance of exposure to the feared stimulus." (p.767). By linking the relaxation with their fears, patients may eliminate the feared stimulus' effect. Lastly, anxiety therapies can be successful by using desensitization. Various stimuli trigger clients' anxiety, but at the same time, they involve in actions that compete with anxiety. Over time, the patient may be less sensitive to the anxiety triggering scenarios. However, to enable this result, patients must repeat the same session repeatedly by homework or follow-up sessions. Increasingly, it is most likely that the client will be desensitized and will not be affected by the negative stimulus.

Essay on Behaviourism: Conclusion

In conclusion, behaviourists aim and claim to determine human behaviours by exploring visible actions. Two theories are heavily used to achieve this. One is the classical (respondent) conditioning of Pavlov, and the second one is the operant (instrumental) conditioning of Skinner. Pavlov's theory depends on automatic response without the organisms will, whereas Skinner's is determined by the organism to get a particular result. Both have qualities that one lacks and the other complements; therefore, these qualities are stated impartially. They are still in use in therapy sessions. Both of these two conditioning types can enlighten human behavior with distinctive approaches. It can be noted that both shows several weaknesses; however, both are critical in today's counselling to help people change.


Corey, G. (2017). Theory and practice of counseling and psychotherapy (10th ed.). Cengage Learning.

Follette, W. C., & Dalto, G. (2015). Classical Conditioning Methods in Psychotherapy. International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, 764–770.

Jensen, R., & Burgess, H. (1997). Mythmaking: How introductory psychology texts present B. F. Skinner’s analysis of cognition. The Psychological Record, 47(2), 221–232.

Mcleod, S. (2018a, January 21). What is Operant Conditioning and how does it work?; Simply Psychology.

Mcleod, S. (2018b, February 5). Classical Conditioning.; Simply Psychology.

Mcsweeney, F. K., & Murphy, E. S. (2014). The Wiley Blackwell handbook of operant and classical conditioning (10th ed.). Wiley Blackwell.

Rehman, I., Mahabadi, N., & Rehman, C. I. (2019, April 8). Classical Conditioning.; StatPearls Publishing.

Skinner, B. F. (1963). Operant behavior. American Psychologist, 18(8), 503–515.

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