I'm working on a conditioning experiment for my psychology class in which I tap my finger three times on a table and then ask my friend to sharpen a pencil for me. If she finishes the task I give a reward (ex. part of a cookie). However, I'm not sure if this would be classified as classical or operant conditioning because although it's a voluntary behavior, it's prompted by a stimulus. I think it's operant conditioning, but I just wanted to be sure. Any advice for this?

  • $\begingroup$ Cueing is a standard part of operant conditioning; arguably most practical operant conditioning examples involve some sort of cueing stimulus to begin the trial, and this one appears to have two. I'm voting to close this question as not very general purpose (looks like a homework question). $\endgroup$
    – Arnon Weinberg
    Dec 8, 2017 at 3:28

1 Answer 1


This is homework. But it's still interesting.

However, I'm not sure if this would be classified as classical or operant conditioning because although it's a voluntary behavior, it's prompted by a stimulus. I think it's operant conditioning,

There are multiple learning processes involved. Some of them have already been established e.g. asking your friend for something is already a salient motivational cue.

Anyways, what you're describing is reminiscent of the learning phenomenon classical-to-instrumental transfer (CIT), which is also referred to in the literature as Pavlovian-instrumental transfer (PIT). Essentially, its the phenomenon by which a conditioned stimulus (CS) eventually acts as a signal or a predictor of a reward contingency (or vice-versa). Think of it as motivation/focus/salience modifier.

It has particular relevance to relapse in drug dependency after a period of abstinence. An individual who has quit smoking, for example, would be more likely to relapse after years of abstinence if they are exposed to any stimuli that were present when they typically smoked. In fact, there is nothing stopping an anti-smoking billboard acting as that stimulus.


This is how you would break down your homework problem. However, you should note that this is NOT the way you would want to structure the training of CIT.

Also, I'm going to assume that the end game here is to get your friend to sharpen your pencil through mere desk tapping.


Sharpening your pencil results in receiving a cookie. By linking a desired behavioural repertoire with a positive outcome, you increase the likelihood of the behaviour being repeated:

[response-outcome]   pencil sharpening => cookie

Your friend will eventually learn that pencil sharpening is something that is rewarded.


Now it's time to add additional stimuli to the learning condition.

There are two parts to this. First, your friend will learn that you asking her to sharpen your pencil will be rewarded, but in its absence, she won't. It would be done along the lines of:

CS+ (asking)   sharpening => cookie

CS- (no asking)   sharpening => [no reinforcement]

Then, through simple conditioning of the two stimuli, tapping and asking will also become paired:

[classical conditioning]   tapping => asking

                                      sharpening => cookie [operant conditioning]


I will spare you the intricacies of how the training is performed, but needless to say, eventually you could expect to observe the following:

  1. Tapping alone should instantiate the sharpening behaviour.

  2. Ditto asking.

  3. As a motivational cue, sharpening should become more vigorous in the presence of tapping.

  4. I suspect, but am not certain, that asking while tapping would have some effect on the vigour of sharpening observed in #3.

  5. Tapping should produce spontaneous recovery after extinction of the sharpening => cookie contingency.

Below is an outline of how classic-to-instrumental transfer is demonstrated experimentally. If you note, you have an additional stimulus pairing (tapping=>asking) but it does not make this any more different to the following:

enter image description here


Domjan, M. (2014). The principles of learning and behavior. Nelson Education.


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