I was taking a practice ap psychology test and was curious how operant and classical conditioning are different.

My test claims that the difference comes from the fact that Classical conditioning is based on an involuntary action and Operant Conditioning is based on voluntary action but obviously this is false since what may be involuntary/reflexive for some may not be the same for others.

An example they gave is how someone may move their hand away from an iron because of 'reflex' whereas they will attempt to do well on a test because they are aware of a reward, but what about someone that has a lot of experience with the given subject and simply does well on the test because they reflexively feel the need to do well. I know for me personally when given a math problem that I can't immediately solve or outline a heuristic for solving I tend to drop all external thoughts and work on it, often with a the same determination with which my dog chases after a squirrel.

This is of course because over time I have gained enough experience, practice, and interest in the field to do so. Thus for others attempting to solve problems will be a voluntary action, but for me personally I have an involuntary need to work on them.

But then again, when someone throws a ball at me, being that I don't have much experience with sports, I tend to first think "theres a ball!" before the reflex for catching initiates while for others that tends to fire off immediately.

So what is the actual difference between voluntary and involuntary actions besides familiarity with said action?

And if familiarity is the only difference then honestly how do Classical and Operant conditioning differ?

  • $\begingroup$ Familiarity is definitely not the difference, and your test's claim is not obviously false. You seem to have misunderstood the strict definition of the unconditioned aspects of classical conditioning. Your experience does not factor into unconditioned stimuli or unconditioned responses. I'll expand on this in an answer when I get a chance if no one beats me to it. $\endgroup$ Commented Apr 2, 2014 at 14:28

1 Answer 1


The first thing to note is that both classical and operant conditioning are theories that attempt to explain how specific observable learning behavior works. They are not natural laws that psychology has uncovered, but models. In certain cases, scholars disagree and debate wether what they observed was caused by classical or operant conditioning. An example is apparative treatment of nighttime bedwetting (enuresis nocturna).

    A common treatment for nighttime bedwetting includes bedwetting alarms: the child wears special underwear with a sensor that registers moisture and triggers an alarm that wakes the child when the first drops of urine are released. Now the goal of the treatment is that the child notices the stimulus "full bladder", wakes up and goes to the toilet. A treatment that helps the child to wake up after the bed has been wet does not help, because you want to avoid the bedwetting, and the children usually wake up by themselves when they are wet anyway. So how does the alarm treatment for bedwetting work? How does waking a child up *upon* urine release teach a child to wake up *before* urine release?
    It could be classical conditioning, but then we would have backward conditioning, because the alarm goes off some time after the stimulus "full bladder". But backward conditioning has been shown to either not work at all or not work well. But the alarm treatment is highly effective. So likely what goes on is operant conditioning, where the wakeup alarm, getting out of bed and changing the bedclothes are aversive elements, and the success (getting up with only a few drops into the bed), the happiness and praise of the parents, and the feeling of competence are rewards.

The debate about how alarm treatment of enuresis works tends towards operant conditioning, but it is by no means decided. Alarm treatment of enuresis could be one rare case of effective backward conditioning.

That said, we can look at what the theoretical difference between classical and operant conditioning are, keeping in mind that these may not be factual, "real" differences in the mechanisms of learning, only in the model:

  • in operant conditioning a behavior is strengthened because of its consequences: what you do (e.g. smoke as a teen) leads to a reward (e.g. peer approval) or punishment (e.g. angry parents), so you repeat or avoid it, to repeatedly receive the reward or avoid the punishment

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  • in classical conditioning the trigger (e.g. food) of a naturally occuring reaction (e.g. salivation) is paired with some random, unrelated stimulus (e.g. a bell sound), this co-occurence is learned, and as a consequence the orginally unrelated stimulus is perceived as a signal that the trigger will appear; the consequences of the reaction (e.g. drooling or digestion) are completely irrelevant for the learning

    enter image description here

You can see that in operant conditioning the original cause (trigger) of the behavior plays no role, while the reinforcement is causally related to the behavior. In classical conditioning the outcome of the behavior plays no role and the learned stimulus has no natural relation to the behavior.


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