Classical conditioning (A complete guide)

Classical conditioning refers to a learning procedure where a biologically significant stimulus is paired with a previously neutral stimulus.

During classical conditioning, two stimuli are repeatedly paired together, and a response which is at first elicited by a second stimulus is eventually elicited by the first stimulus alone. 

In this blog article, we will discuss the concept of classical conditioning and how it is experienced by humans (and animals) in everyday life.

We will also discuss some of the historical experiments that led to classical conditioning becoming what it is today. 

What is classical conditioning? 

Classical conditioning is essentially learning through association. It was discovered by the Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov in the early 1900s.

Pavlov was doing experiments on the digestive systems of dogs, when he decided to devote his entire life to working on figuring out the underlying principles of classical conditioning. 

With classical conditioning, two stimuli become linked together to produce a new learned response in a person or animal.

In the example of Pavlov’s dogs, when he presented them with food, it elicited a natural response of salivation.

Pavlov then rang a bell and soon after presented the food. He repeated this pairing several times.

Eventually, the ringing of the bell alone produced the salivation response in the dogs. 

Classical conditioning (A complete guide)

What are the stages of classical conditioning? 

There are three major stages of classical conditioning: before conditioning, during conditioning, and after conditioning. 

The following is a detailed description of each stage:          

Stage 1: Before Conditioning

In this stage, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR).

The UCS can be something in the environment that produces a natural response, or UCR.

For example, if you get food poisoning (UCS), your response would probably be nausea (UCR). 

In this stage, the environment produces a natural behavior or response which is unlearned (i.e., unconditioned).

Another example that you may have heard of is Pavlov’s dogs.

When the dogs were presented with the stimulus of food, they naturally produced a salivating response.

Because this is a natural response to a stimulus, no new behavior has been learned yet. 

Stage 2: During Conditioning

During stage 2, a stimulus that would normally produce no response (neutral stimulus, NS) becomes associated with the unconditioned stimulus.

Thus, the neutral stimulus now becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS). Think back to the food poisoning example from stage 1.

If you got food poisoning from eating a meal involving corn (previously NS), you may now associate corn with the food poisoning and become nauseous just from the sight or smell or corn.

Corn is now the conditioned stimulus that produces the conditioned response (CR) of nausea. 

For classical conditioning to be effective, the conditioned stimulus has to occur before the unconditioned stimulus and not after it or at the same time.

Thus, the conditioned stimulus (corn) acts as a type of signal or cue for the unconditioned stimulus (food poisoning). 

The UCS usually must be associated with the CS on several occasions, or trials, for classical conditioning to take place.

For the food poisoning example, however, classical conditioning can happen from one occasion because it is not necessary for this association to be strengthened. 

Classical conditioning (A complete guide)

Stage 3: After Conditioning 

In stage 3, the conditioned stimulus is associated with the unconditioned stimulus to create a new conditioned response.

Now just seeing the corn (CS) on its own will produce nausea (CR) because corn is associated with food poisoning (UCS). 

Does classical conditioning work in humans? 

A famous albeit controversial example of classical conditioning in humans is the Little Albert experiment in 1920 conducted by Watson and Raynor. 

Little Albert was a 9-month old infant who was presented with various stimuli including a white rat, a rabbit, a monkey, and different masks.

He showed no initial fear to any of these stimuli.

Once Watson and Raynor struck a hammer against a steel bar behind him, however, Albert became scared and burst into tears.

The sudden loud noise of the hammer, which in this case is the unconditioned stimulus, caused Little Albert to become startled and thus burst into tears, which is the unconditioned response. 

A few months later, the experimenters presented Little Albert with a white rat and seconds later the hammer was struck against the steel bar.

This was repeated seven times over the next seven weeks, and Little Albert would consistently burst into tears (CR) when the white rat was presented (CS) and the hammer hit the steel bar seconds later (UCS). 

At this time, the white rat alone was enough to make Little Albert burst into tears.

He would cry whether or not the hammer was struck against the steel bar.

Classical conditioning (A complete guide)

What is generalization in classical conditioning? 

Over time, stimuli that resemble the conditioned stimulus can elicit the conditioned response.

For example, in the experiment described above, Little Albert developed phobias of certain objects that resembled the white rat (which is now a learned cue, or conditioned stimulus for the scary sound of the hammer hitting the bar).

Little Albert became afraid of the family dog, a fur coat, cotton wool, and even a Christmas mask. 

What is extinction in classical conditioning?

Fortunately, classical conditioning is a reversible form of learning.

After conditioning has occurred, the conditioned stimulus can be presented several times without being paired with the unconditioned stimulus.

Over several weeks or months, the conditioned response will not be elicited from the conditioned stimulus alone.

The association, however, can be renewed, by repeating the original procedure a few times. 

How is classical conditioning used in modern times? 

Classical conditioning is typically used in advertising.

Consumers respond to images of delicious food in an unconscious way, for example by salivating.

This is a natural response, and advertisers take advantage of this in their commercials by including images of food that they know consumers will be drawn to and thus are more likely to utilize their service.

Classical conditioning can also cause learned helplessness, as suggested by the study of Seligmen and Maier.

Classical conditioning (A complete guide)

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Frequently asked questions (FAQs) about classical conditioning: 

1.   What is classical conditioning in learning?

Classical conditioning, which is also known as Pavlovian or respondent conditioning, is when a biologically powerful stimulus (i.e., food) is paired with a previously neutral stimulus (i.e., a bell). 

2.   What is the difference between classical and operant conditioning?

Both classical conditioning and operant conditioning lead to learning.

Classical conditioning pairs two stimuli, while operant conditioning pairs a positive or negative behavior with a positive or negative response.

Classical conditioning also works with involuntary responses, while operant conditioning works with voluntary behaviors. 

3.   What are the stages of classical conditioning?

The stages of conditioning are usually the following:

– Before conditioning

– After conditioning

– Extinction

– Spontaneous recovery

– Stimulus generalization

– Stimulus discrimination

– Higher-order conditioning 

4.   What is an example of classical conditioning in everyday life?

There are many examples of classical conditioning in everyday life.

One example is when you get home from work you open the garage and then soon after you feed your dogs.

Food is the unconditioned stimulus because it naturally leads to salivation and excited responses from the hungry dogs.

The garage door opening, however, was previously a neutral stimulus, and is now a conditioned stimulus because the garage door opening alone can elicit the dogs excited barking. 

5.   What is the purpose of classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning is important because it emphasizes the importance of learning from the environment and supports the concept of nurture over nature.

Classical conditioning is also a reductionist explanation of behavior. 

6.   What are the four components of classical conditioning?

The four components of classical conditioning are a neutral stimulus, a conditioned response, an unconditioned stimulus, a conditioned response, and a conditioned stimulus. 

7.    When was classical conditioning discovered?

Classical conditioning was discovered by accident when Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, was doing experiments on the digestive systems of dogs in the early 1900s.

He then devoted his entire life to working on figuring out the underlying principles of classical conditioning. 

8.   Is classical conditioning ethical? 

Classical conditioning is a natural learning process that humans and animals experience where environmental stimuli that frequently happen together become associated.

Because classical conditioning is a natural process, it is neither ethical nor unethical; it is just one of the ways in which we learn. 

9.   What is spontaneous recovery in classical conditioning?

Spontaneous recovery is when a previously extinguished conditioned response re-emerges after a delay.

For example, if you used to associate your friend’s house with smoking and this elicited cigarette cravings, your friend’s house is the conditioned stimulus.

Overtime, however, if you friend stops smoking with you at her house, the house becomes less and less associated with cigarette cravings, and eventually you stop getting the cravings from just seeing her house.

One day, days, weeks, or years later, you go back to her house and start to get cravings for cigarettes.

This phenomenon is known as spontaneous recovery.

10.                 How is classical conditioning used in advertising

Consumers respond to images of delicious food in an unconscious way, for example by salivating.

This is a natural response, and advertisers take advantage of this in their commercials by including images of food that they know consumers will be drawn to and thus are more likely to utilize their service. 

11.                 Can you reverse classical conditioning?

Fortunately, classical conditioning is a reversible form of learning.

After conditioning has occurred, the conditioned stimulus can be presented several times without being paired with the unconditioned stimulus.

Over several weeks or months, the conditioned response will not be elicited from the conditioned stimulus alone.

This is known as extinction.

The association, however, can be renewed, by repeating the original procedure a few times. This is known as reinstatement.

From this blog article, we hope you learned the different stages of classical conditioning, how it works in everyday life, and the ways in which classical conditioning can be reversed. 

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This book by John Raven explores how positive psychology can be used to help our fellow humans and animals be all-around better.

For example, both people and dogs like being praised, so we can use this as a strategy to “train” ourselves and others. 

A Psychology Journal: Classical Conditioning

If you want to gain a more advanced understanding of classical conditioning, this is the book for you.

Steven Carley discusses how classical conditioning works from the side of Ivan Pavlov and also sheds light on classical conditioning from different perspectives such as that of Donald Hebb.

This book contains 16 diagrams of different types of conditioning. 

Single Theory Workbook 1: Classical Conditioning. How Do We Train Our Reflexes and Emotions? (Hollitown Self-Help and Performance Psychology Training Workbook Series)

This workbook by Holli Willibey will teach you how to use theories in psychology such as classical and operant conditioning to improve many areas of your life.

You will learn from this book that there are many ways to apply psychology instantly to your everyday life. 

References

Classical Conditioning.Simply Psychology. 2018 

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