What’s Operant / Classical Conditioning and How Can I Use It?

Classical conditioning and operant conditioning are psychological reactions exploited by advertisers to convince us to buy their products. In classical conditioning, consumers respond to a stimulus in a particular, unconscious way – for example, by salivating when they see a picture of delicious food. In operant conditioning, advertisers try to change consumers' behavior by using rewards or punishment. For example, by giving consumers money back after buying a particular product.

Jennifer Evans
Jennifer Evans

Last week I wrote a blog about Cognition and Understanding Consumer Behavior and how you can apply that to gain insight into the behavior and choices of your customers. Today we are going to talk about Operant and Classical Conditioning and how we can use this in our online marketing strategies.

There are two types of conditioning - and both work, just be aware for what reasons you should use one more than the other. Both Operant and Classical conditioning assist a person to display a certain behavior.

To give you a little bit of background and understanding of both Operant and Classical conditioning, I will explain who researched the methods and what each form of conditioning involves.

Operant Conditioning

In 1937, a psychologist named B.F. Skinner discovered a method of learning behavior - Operant Conditioning - by which you associate learning with processing a behavior, strengthened by one of the following methods;

  • Positive Punishment

  • Negative Punishment

  • Positive Reinforcement

  • Negative Reinforcement

Positive Punishment is used to teach a person not to engage in a certain behavior, reducing the likelihood that they will do it again. Actually, this is somewhat similar to how a student could get detention as punishment for not completing their homework. Negative Punishment, on the other hand, is when a person does something wrong but nothing prevents them from committing the same behavior again. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying you should do it to your customers!

Positive Reinforcement would be similar to receiving a promotion - you have done great at work, your manager recognises it and decides to reward you. Negative Reinforcement would be something like knowing you must do 5 days of work a week, for 8 hours a day. To boost the self esteem of the employees however, your boss declares you met your target for the week and therefore cuts the time you have to work that week.

Let's bring Emma back into the picture, our fictive customer. She is currently browsing through your website and she wants to sign up to the subscription program for members, so she can get extra benefits other than the everyday user. How would you condition her to use the best feature of your subscription service? Using Operant conditioning - you, the service provider, can subtly use command words that seem better than others when offering the different subscription tiers. By doing so you’ll help Emma make a choice between the different subscriptions.

By implementing more positive, or negative words - you can adjust your customers point of view to direct them to the best option for both your company and the customer, resulting in the use of Negative Reinforcement. Just remember NR is not about making things resemble a bad thing, or telling them it’s wrong, it’s more about removing that negative behavior or thought process and replacing it with a better choice.

Classical conditioning

Ivan Pavlov

During the 1980’s whilst researching why dogs salivate so much, Ivan discovered that a stimulus is needed to increase levels of salivation other than the normal rate - to keep the dog’s mouth from drying out. Classical conditioning is the process by which unconsciously a response is made in reaction to a stimulus.

Ivan Pavlov - classical conditioning with dogs

To describe this whole theory there are a few steps to explain how a behavior / reaction to the stimulus is expressed. Firstly let me explain what each term is and then I will explain how they create the backbone to Pavlov’s theory.

  • UCS: Unconditioned Stimulus

  • UCR: Unconditioned Response

  • NS: Neutral Stimulus

  • CS: Controlled Stimulus

  • CR: Controlled Response

Let’s dive deeper into the details now - which is the tricky bit and will take you a couple of times to read over and to understand. Trust me when I say that it’s not easy to associate day to day examples straight away, but soon enough you’ll be able to make that distinction yourself.

Explaining Pavlov’s Experiment

The UCS is the event that occurs to produce the natural response to the stimulus, which in this case is the dog food. The UCR is the response that’s given to this stimulus, the salivation produced by the dogs’ salivary glands. The NS is the sound of rattling food in the dog bowl, or the sound of shoes across the floor coming towards them, but this doesn’t alert the salivary glands.

However, the more often they were given food, Pavlov discovered that the dogs began to learn the sound of the bell (announcing its dinner time) or the sound of shoes on the way to the dogs - which is now becoming the CS. The dog’s then began to associate it with the food, ultimately ending in the controlled response, CR.

So each time the bells sound or the sound of food in the bowl rattles, the dogs drool in response to the anticipation of eating that delicious food. This then concluded that his theory stated - ‘Classical conditioning is learning through association or a repeated behavior’.

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So let’s take this into consideration and apply it to our customer, Emma. Your business wants Emma to understand that when she gets a notification in your app, it isn’t spam. With the certain sound that the notification produces, you want her to know that it's an update on her booking / order of your product or service.

But how do you do this when you don’t know how to do this exactly? You could dwell on it for hours and hours. But why not just look at our good friend Ivan and take his theory onboard? After all, it could help Emma and thousands of other customers just like her and keep them updated with their request!

You could create a notification that highlights a visual cue containing an emoji and short text on their smartphone which can direct them into the news they wanted to hear about their order / booking. ‘Yay! Your order with us is confirmed!’ - this along with the notification sound would incline Emma to look closer and open the notification to read more on the details of her order.

UCS through phone notifications

The visual appearance of this new information would boost your demand and increase your chances of more sales for your business as the ease and the communication is thriving with your customers! Because let’s be honest, when things are communicated properly, it makes everyones lives a lot easier.

Now let’s double check to see how Ivan’s theory has improved the communication between your company and Emma.

The notification appearing on Emma’s phone acts as the UCS. The UCR is Emma checking for more details about her order. The neutral stimulus is the message presented in that notification. When conditioning is present; the notification pings, Emma checks her phone and the message is lighting up on her screen - there is no response between the three.

But after conditioning and repeating the behavior a few times, Emma checking the message from your company in detail becomes the conditioned response (CR) and the conditioned stimulus (CS) is the notification that lights up on her phone with your perfect, yet small simple update on her order.

Conclusion: what would I advise you to remember?

Overall, both methods of conditioning work, but make sure you’re on alert for which method is best for each situation, because at times only sticking to one method doesn’t always work for every purpose. But give it a try! One of them is bound to work to increase your business’ performance one way or another!

Does your website or mobile app have the right response among your customers? Talk to one of our experts and discover what features we can help you integrate to increase your sales and conversions by starting a new mobile or web development project