This paper discusses the differences between classical and operant conditioning and their basis in the foundations of psychology. The discussion of classical conditioning utilizes the movies Sea Biscuit and Peter Pan. Addressing concepts of the neutral stimulus, the unconditioned stimulus, the unconditioned response, the conditioned stimulus, and the conditioned response. The discussion of operant conditioning utilizes the movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and the television show Dawson’s Creek to discuss the positive or negative effects of reinforcement or punishment. Throughout this essay, the ultimate goal will be to determine the different types of classical and operant conditioning within the medium’s cultural aura.
Psychology identifies two prevalent trains of thought about teaching others learned behaviors, classical and operant conditioning. Classical conditioning involves pairing an unlearned stimulus with something that immediately triggers a psychological reaction; soon, this unlearned stimulus becomes the conditioned stimulus: a person is suddenly conditioned to elicit the same effect when the conditioned stimulus is present. Operant conditioning involves the dynamic of reinforcement and punishment; these two dynamics either encourage the behavior to persist (reinforcement) or to be resisted (punishment.) These variables present according to a temporal schedule, whether ratio or interval, fixed or variable.
In the Disney classic, Peter Pan, classical conditioning is present within Captain Hook. For those not familiar with the story, Captain Hook got his signature because of the hook that replaced his hand that was severed by a crocodile bite. The crocodile had attacked him while a clock was ringing. Thus the clock consistently grates on Captain Hook’s nerves and psyche based on his previous experience. No matter the situation, when Captain Hook hears the ringing of an alarm clock, he consistently experiences a panicked state stemming from his previous experience (Disney & Geronomi, 1953).
Trained psychologists and students of psychology are able to identify his reactive experience as “classical conditioning.” The neutral stimulus is the clock ringing. Captain Hook had no previous strong relationship with a clock, it was simply a neutral experience. However, the clock became the unconditioned stimulus due to the unconditioned response: the crocodile bite. Because of the bite (now the conditioned response), every time Captain Hook hears a clock ringing (the conditioned stimulus), he automatically panics due to his previous experience. The way this could be extinguished would be to replace the now conditioned response with a more pleasant feeling. For example, whenever Captain Hook hears a clock ringing, he could hold a pleasant scent to his nose. This way the unconditioned/conditioned pleasant response could replace the crocodile bite memory.
The blockbuster hit, Seabiscuit, provides another example of classical conditioning showcased in the media. Seabiscuit involves a typical underdog story, in which a horse and a jockey develop a deep, heartfelt connection while competing in horse races. The scene that best exemplifies classical conditioning occurs when Red, the jockey, trains his horse Seabiscuit to race exceptionally fast at the beginning of the race. By utilizing classical conditioning, Seabiscuit soon becomes the fastest horse of his time (Kennedy & Ross, 2003).
Here, the neutral stimulus is a bell. The bell has no significant prior meaning to the horse. However, when pairing the sound of the bell with the unconditioned response, a whip, Seabiscuit naturally runs faster. When the jockey whips him, the physical feeling encourages Seabiscuit to move faster. The unconditioned response soon pairs the whip with the bell. Because of this, the conditioned stimulus is now bell ringing. Red no longer has to whip Seabiscuit at the beginning of the race, because his conditional response when he hears the bell ringing is to pick up speed. The ultimate goal of ringing the bell is to inspire Seabiscuit to run as fast as he can, which propels him toward the goal of winning the race. If for some reason Red needed to stop Seabiscuit’s behavior, he could replace the sound of the bell with some other stimulus. For example, whenever Seabiscuit heard the sound of a bell, Red could feed him. Similar to the experiment with Pavlov's dogs, Seabiscuit would develop another psychological response; instead of responding to his previous experience of the whip, he would now start relating hunger and salivation with the sound of the bell.
Operant conditioning, like classical conditioning, follows the same goal of altering behavior. However, it goes about it in a different way. This type of conditioning focuses on reinforcement and punishment. The movie Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix includes a marvelous example of positive punishment. In one scene, Professor Umbridge attempts to cure Harry of (what she believes is) speaking out against the Ministry of Magic (a wizard world type of government) by repeatedly writing “I must not tell lies” with a blood quill. A blood quill is a pen that, when you write with it on paper, painfully inscribes on your skin the very text you are writing on paper” (Heyman & Yates, 2007).
Via this positive form of punishment, Umbridge attempts to reform Harry’s behavior by adding something. In this case, Umbridge is adding the pain associated with Harry’s punishment; he has not felt this pain before, therefore, it is characterized as “positive punishment.” Although it is not stated within the movie, it is inferred that this punishment would be on a fixed-ratio time frame, because Umbridge automatically punished Harry after hearing what he said about the Ministry of Magic. Every time Harry made a comment such as this, he would have to write “I will not tell lies” with his blood quill.
Dawson’s Creek, a highly rated television program in the late 1990s and early 2000s focused on a group of teens battling typical teenage issues such as relationships, futures, and breaking rules. In a particular episode, one of the main characters learns via operant conditioning. Pacey Witter, a mischievous young adult, develops a sexual relationship with his teacher, Tamara Jacobs. Tamara practices operant conditioning on Pacey as she tutors him for a class. This example of operant conditioning occurs when Tamara chooses to remove one article of clothing whenever Pacey answers a question correctly (Williamson & Prange, 1998).
In this situation, Tamara exhibits a type of negative reinforcement. She is taking something away from Pacey that he deems unpleasant (her clothes covering her body) in order to reinforce positive behavior (answering a question correctly). This is an example of fixed-ratio reinforcement because it uses a set ratio: every time Pacey answers a question correctly, he is rewarded with one piece of clothing removed.
We can easily identify the different types of both operant and classical conditioning present in different forms of media because of the selective signifiers present within each scenario. Both Peter Pan and Seabiscuit demonstrate an automatic pairing of a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned response. With Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and Dawson’s Creek display an obvious reinforcement and punishment dynamic used to encourage or discourage a specific behavior.
Disney, W. (Producer), & Geronomi, C. (Director). (1953). Peter Pan [Motion picture]. United States: RKO Radio Pictures.
Heyman, D. (Producer), & Yates, D. (Director). (2007). Harry Potter and the order of the phoenix [Motion picture]. United Kingdom: Warner Bros. Pictures.
Kennedy, K. (Producer), & Ross, G. (Director). (2003). Seabiscuit [Motion picture]. United States: Universal Pictures.
Williamson, K. (Writer), & Prange, G. (Director). (1998). Discovery. [Television series episode]. In Kapinos, Tom (Producer), Dawson’s Creek. Wilmington, North Carolina: Sony Pictures Television Distribution.