Classical and Operant Conditioning

Doctor Josh Dubnau describes the difference between operant and classical conditioning, which are two different learning paradigms often studied in scientific laboratories.

Psychologists traditionally have categorized learning paradigms, and I’ll explain what that means in a minute, into two different types: one we call classical and one we call operant. A learning paradigm is really just an experimentalist’s way of studying learning. In the wild, we as animals and all other animals learn by bumping around our environment, touching something that’s hot, and yanking our hand back and realizing that this is hot, and experimentalists have tried to mimic that with a kind of learning paradigm that we call operant. Operant learning is learning where an animal’s actions expose it to stimuli, and their responses to those stimuli determine whether the animal is punished or rewarded. So, operant conditioning is an experimental paradigm done in the laboratory, where the experimenter tries to allow the animal's behavior to reinforce its experiences in a way that mimics the way that animals learn in the wild. The strength of operant conditioning is that it’s more closely related to the way we learn in a normal outside environment, and not in a laboratory. The difficulty with operant conditioning is that we don’t always know what the stimuli are that the animal pays attention to, or what’s being associated in the brains of the animal. Is the animal learning that its motion of its arm to touch the radiator is causing the painful response, or is it associating the pain with the color and texture of the radiator? We can’t know that and we can’t control how much training the animal receives. The other type of associative learning paradigm that experimentalists use is called classical or Pavlovian learning. And this was invented by the famous scientist Pavlov who studied dogs. Everybody knows about the ringing the bell when you present the dog with food, and the dog learns that the bell predicts the appearance of food. The advantage of this learning paradigm is that the experimenter controls the strength, the number, and the nature of the stimuli that the animal uses to learn a task. The disadvantage is that it’s a little bit artificial, it’s not really the way dogs learn how to find food in the wild.

conditioning, classical, operant, learning, paradigm, pavlov, pavlovian, psychology, memory, experiment, josh, dubnau, cshl

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