Classical Conditioning: A Simple Exploration through Ivan Pavlov

Classical conditioning

Ding!Ding! You hear the school bell ring and it is lunch break, you immediately open your tiffin box and start eating. Why do we automatically open our tiffins to eat as soon as the bell rings? This association of the lunch break bell sound and the act of eating is what Ivan Pavlov called classical conditioning. Classical conditioning is a process where automatic or conditioned responses are paired with a specific stimulus. The pioneer who discovered this was Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. He was originally studying the digestion of dogs when something struck his mind: it was the dog’s pattern of responding to the arrival of food, which changed over time. Dogs started salivating before the food was even presented.

So, he conducted an experiment where a bell was rung before food was given to dogs. The dogs didn’t respond to the bells initially, but after several trials of associating the bell with the presentation of food, they started salivating after hearing the bell. This is how Pavlov came up with the concept of classical conditioning. This had a huge impact on the school of thought in psychology known as behaviorism, which assumes that learning occurs through interaction with the environment which shapes our behavior.

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Basic Terminologies of Classical Conditioning

Let’s look at the basic terms which explain the process of learning through classical conditioning.

These are as follows:

  1. Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS): It is the stimulus that leads to an automatic response. For example: When we touch a hot object we automatically take off our hands. This automatic response to a stimulus is an unconditioned stimulus, also termed as ‘UCS’.
  2. Unconditioned Response (UCR): The automatic response to the UCS that occurs without thought is called unconditioned response or UCR. So, taking off your hands is a UCR and touching a hot object is UCS.
  3. Neutral Stimulus (NS): The stimulus which elicits no response on its own is called a neutral stimulus. This neutral stimulus doesn’t initially elicit a response but when continuously paired with UCS will elicit a response. For example, the sound of the bell elicited no response initially.
  4. Conditioned Stimulus (CS): The stimulus which was initially a neutral stimulus, but eventually triggered a conditioned response. For example, the sound of a bell becomes a conditioned stimulus for dogs.
  5. Conditioned Response (CR): When a neutral stimulus is continuously paired with UCS, it will elicit a conditioned response. It is a learned response as a result of multiple associations of NS and UCS. For eg: In Pavlov’s experiment, the dogs started salivating at the sound of a bell, which initially didn’t elicit a response.

So, these terms help us to understand how learning occurs by forming an association between two stimuli, resulting in a learned or conditioned response.

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Key Principles of Classical Conditioning

Here are the five principles of classical conditioning:

  1. Acquisition: It is the initial phase of learning where response is established by repeated pairing of neutral stimulus and unconditioned stimulus.
  2. Extinction: The conditioned response decreases or disappears as the pairing of conditioned stimulus with unconditioned stimulus is ceased. For eg, If the sound of the bell is no longer associated with food, the conditioned response of salivating on hearing the sound of the bell will eventually cease.
  3. Spontaneous Recovery: The re-emergence of the conditioned stimulus after a period of extinction is called spontaneous recovery. For eg: Suppose after a month of extinction period, again one day the same bell is rung, then there is a chance that dogs might salivate.
  4. Generalization: It refers to a tendency to elicit a response to a similar conditioned stimulus. For eg, The sound of another bell similar to the original bell might elicit a conditioned response.
  5. Discrimination: It refers to the ability of an individual to differentiate between two or more conditioned stimulus. For eg: The dogs differentiate between the sound of a bell and the sound of an alarm clock.

Applications of Classical Conditioning In Real-World Settings

Why do we study classical conditioning in psychology? How does it apply in real-life settings? So, let’s look at examples of classical conditioning operating in real-life contexts.

1) Clinical Settings:

Pavlov’s classical conditioning is used in clinical settings to influence human health, emotion and motivation; to treat psychological disorders like phobias; and to train in drug rehabilitation:

  • i) Aversive Conditioning: Classical conditioning has also been proven to condition the immune system. Conditioned taste aversion is an example of classical conditioning used in drug rehabilitation centres where a particular taste accompanies the drug, which influences the immune response and later, the taste itself can induce an immune response which eventually reduces or ceases the usage of drugs.
  • ii) Overcoming Phobias: Classical conditioning is used to overcome phobias using counterconditioning, systematic desensitization and virtual reality exposure therapy. In counterconditioning, a trigger stimulus is paired with a response contradictory to fear. In systematic desensitization, the individual is exposed to the feared stimulus in a hierarchical manner, from the least fear-inducing response to the highest fear-inducing response, with a combination of relaxation techniques to overcome their fear of a particular object. Virtual Reality is similar to systematic desensitization but uses a virtual-reality device to overcome the fear.
2) Training children to learn appropriate behaviours:

Parents can also use classical conditioning principles to train their children to learn appropriate behviors and habits. Toilet training uses the principles of classical conditioning. The neutral stimulus is going to the bathroom and sitting on the tiolet, the unconditioned stimulus is the urge to pee which leads to an unconditioned response of urination. So repeated pairings of sitting on the toilet when there is an urge to pee will lead to a conditioned response of using the washroom when there is an urge to pee. Researcher O.H Mowrer developed a therapy for bed-wetters where the child slept on a liquid-sensitive pad connected to an alarm. When moisture was detected the alarm would go off, and after several repetitions bladder relaxation became associated with waking up. Individuals were able to recover from their bed-wetting habit.

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3) Advertising and Marketing:

Classical conditioning has also been useful in the business and marketing sectors. It helps companies develop a favourable attitude towards particular products and brands which leads to an increased likelihood of developing a favourable opinion towards that product or brand.

Some Famous Experiments and Facts about Classical Conditioning:
1) Little Albert Experiment:

Behaviorist John B Watson conducted this experiment to condition, emotional reactions in human beings. He exposed a series of stimuli to a 9-month-old boy called Little Albert. The boy initially showed no fear response to any stimuli. The next time Albert was exposed to the rat, they made a loud noise by hitting a metal pipe with a hammer. The child began to cry after hearing the loud noise. After repeated pairing of the white rat with the loud noise, Albert began to expect a frightening noise whenever he saw the white rat. Evnetually, he began to cry simply after seeing the white rat. The experiment raises many ethical concerns. Little Albert was harmed during this experiment where he was conditioned to fear rats which was previously nonexistent.

2) Garcia Effect:

Dr. John Garcia, a psychologist discovered the ‘Garcia effect’. It is an exception to classical conditioning. The Garcia effect states that organisms will avoid certain foods that they have eaten near the time they experience nausea or vomiting. He believed this acted as a survival mechanism which keeps animals from repeatedly eating substances that may injure or kill them. Although this phenomenon followed Pav,ovian conditioning it broke key principles of learning. This is also known as Conditioned taste aversion.

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Although, Pavlov’s classical conditioning is widely recognized and his work is appreciated in the field of psychology. Some researchers argued that it failed to consider the complexities of human actions like reasoning, thinking and memory. One of the major criticism is that it is deterministic in nature which means it doesn’t allow the individual any degree of free will as they have no control over their conditioned actions. It also raises a lot of ethical concerns as it can manipulate behviors without consent like in the case of Little Albert. In conclusion, although classical conditioning laid foundation for understanding human behavior but it cannot be the sole model for learning.

  • Rehman, I. (2023, August 14). Classical conditioning. StatPearls – NCBI Bookshelf.
  • Ciccarelli, S. K., & Meyer, G. E. (2006). Psychology. Pearson Education.
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