In this article, we will examine classical conditioning, the simple process of creating an association between two different stimuli to create new learning.
What is Conditioning in Psychology
In the study of psychology, conditioning is the process of pairing two stimuli together so that if one stimulus can trigger a reaction, the other can do the same, too, simply by learned association.
You can easily find classical conditioning scenarios in everyday life.
For example, whenever you come home wearing a baseball cap, you take your child to the park to play.
So, whenever your child sees you come home with a baseball cap, he is excited because he has associated your baseball cap with a trip to the park.
This learning by association is classical conditioning.
What is Classical Conditioning in Psychology
Classical conditioning, also called Pavlovian conditioning and respondent conditioning, is learning through the association of a neutral stimulus with a biologically potent stimulus. The biologically potent stimulus is an involuntary response, also known as a reflex or reflexive response.
Classical conditioning was discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov as he studied the digestive system of dogs in the early 1900s1.
Here is the famous Pavlov’s dog experiment demonstrating the classical conditioning theory of learning.
Pavlov observed that his dogs would salivate every time he entered the room, whether or not he brought food, because the dogs had associated his entrance into the room with being fed.
Pavlov then conducted a series of experiments using different sound-making objects to condition the dogs’ behavioral responses.
In Pavlov’s experiment, he sounded a bell whenever he fed his dogs.
After several repetitions, the dogs began salivating as soon as they heard the sound – even before they saw the food.
Soon after, he started ringing the bell without giving them any food.
Still, Pavlov’s dog would continue to salivate at the sound without seeing food.
The sound of a bell had become associated with food, and the salivation response had become a learned response.
The sound of the bell became a conditioned stimulus.
Classical Conditioning Examples
Here are some examples of Ivan Pavlov’s classical conditioning in everyday life.
1. A warm and nurturing teacher motivates students
A warm and nurturing teacher (US) makes students feel connected (UR).
Students associate going to school (CS) with the teacher.
Therefore, students learn to enjoy going to school (CR)2.
It is one of the positive classical conditioning examples for students.
2. A harsh and strict teacher demotivates students
A harsh and strict teacher (US) makes students feel bad (UR).
Students associate going to school (CS) with the harsh teacher and learn to feel bad about going to school (CR).
It is one of the most common classical conditioning examples in the classroom where students are unmotivated to learn.
3. Fear of dogs
A child sees a dog attack a person. It’s a very frightening experience (UR).
Dogs are generally neutral stimuli (US) that many people find adorable.
But to this child, after this incident, he’s scared (CR) whenever he sees a dog (CS).
4. Food aversion
Food poisoning can lead to a phobia of a specific food.
The first time someone eats a certain food (US) and gets sick, they may associate the food with feeling awful (UR).
The food’s appearance, smell, or taste (CS) can evoke an intense dislike or even fear in the person (CR).
5. Anxiety over needles
Here is one of the most common classical conditioning real-life examples for parents.
Getting a flu shot (US) hurts and makes a child cry (UR).
The child associates the needle (CS) with getting hurt and cries at the sight of the needle (CR).
6. Stage fright
A child was laughed at (US) when he gave a presentation in class, and he felt ashamed (UR).
Now, whenever he has to speak up in front of people (CS), he feels nervous and fearful (CR).
7. Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health disorder that results from exposure to a traumatic event, such as a natural disaster or violent crime (US).
Patients were victims or witnesses who experienced intense fear (UR) in the event. Location, objects, or sounds are cues that could be associated with it.
When such a cue is present (CS), it can trigger flashbacks and intrusive thoughts (CR) in sufferers.
8. Obsessive-compulsive disorder
OCD is characterized by intrusive and unwanted thoughts (obsessions) and the need for repetitive behaviors or mental acts (compulsions).
Obsessions commonly involve germs, contamination, doubts, order, and symmetry.
The obsession often develops through respondent conditioning.
A person who has associated a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus is likely to feel anxious and obsessive upon further encounters with the neutral stimulus.
These obsessive thoughts are classically conditioned responses.
9. Praises encourage a child to feel happy about their good behavior
A parent’s praise for a child’s good behavior (US) makes them proud (UR).
The child associates the behavior (CS) with the praise and feels proud (CR).
10. Parent turns homework into misery
If parents yell at their kids (US) for not doing homework, they feel miserable (UR).
They will learn to associate homework (CS) with misery and dislike it (CR).
11. Parent turns homework into a game
Playing games with the parent (US) makes a child happy (UR).
The child associates homework (CS) with playing games and learning to feel good about doing homework (CR).
12. Anxious about exams
Whenever a child fails an exam, they get punished (US) by their parents.
The child then associates exams with bad consequences that create anxiety (UR).
When the child takes an exam again (CS), they will automatically become nervous (CR).
13. Getting A’s
A child who gets all A’s on his report card is praised and rewarded by his parents (US), making him feel good(UR).
Exams (CS) are associated with pride and confidence (CR) instead of anxiety and fear for him.
14. Crave for hotdogs
Every time a father brings his son to a football game, he buys him a hotdog.
The child loves the feeling (UR) of spending time with his father (US).
Even as an adult, he still craves hotdogs (CR) when he attends a game (CS).
15. Parents’ angry expression
When parents get angry and are about to yell, their faces and body gestures show certain angry expressions.
Yelling and scolding (US) can scare small children into crying (UR).
When these kids see a grownup with those expressions (CS), they spontaneously cry (CR).
Most children love playing with other kids (US). It is fun and makes them feel happy (UR).
When a child sees a group of children playing with a toy in a commercial, they associate the toy (CS) with happy feelings (CR) and want to play with it, too.
17. Cellphone ringtone
People associate cellphone ringtones (US) with different feelings.
If a person receives calls from friends, which makes them feel connected and happy (UR), they will learn to feel happy (CR) by just hearing the tones by themselves (CS).
18. The bread-baking aroma in an open house
It has long been known that real estate agents bake bread during open houses.
The aroma of baking bread is often associated with memories of childhood (US) that make people feel reminiscent (UR).
Upon smelling that scent (CS) again during the open house, a person is more likely to feel at home (CR).
19. Festive music
The holiday season (US) is usually a joyful time filled with music, gifts, and laughter (UR).
During the holiday shopping season, department stores often play holiday music (CS) to evoke a festive and generous feeling (CR).
Walking with its owner (US) is exciting for a dog (UR) who stays inside all day.
So, when it sees its owner change into a sweatshirt, put on a coat, and grab the keys, it knows they’re going out.
These actions alone (CS) can excite the dog (CR).
The Basics of Classical Conditioning
Let’s go over the mechanics of classical conditioning.
There are multiple steps of classic conditioning.
At each stage, stimuli and responses are identified by different terminology.
The three stages of classical conditioning are before, during, and after acquisition.
Phase 1: Before Acquisition
This is a reflex reaction that doesn’t require training or practice. It is also called the primary reinforcer.
E.g., In Pavlov’s experiment, feeding dogs food (US) naturally causes them to salivate (UR).
This reaction was an unconditioned reflex.
In this stage, neutral stimuli (NS) do not trigger an unconditioned response.
A new neutral stimulus could be anything, e.g., a sound, smell, taste, object, scene, etc.
It doesn’t produce a response until it is paired with the unconditioned stimulus.
E.g., Ringing the bell (NS) by itself did not elicit salivation (UR) in Pavlov’s dogs initially.
Phase 2: Acquisition
During acquisition, the neutral stimulus is paired repeatedly with the unconditioned stimulus to form an association.
Generally, it takes the pair of stimuli multiple pairings to become associated.
But sometimes, the association can be formed by a single NS-US pairing without repetition.
E.g., A dog barked (NS) and then bit (US) a child’s leg.
The child was very scared (UR).
When this child hears a dog bark again (CS), they tremble with fear (CR). This learning process only took one pairing to complete.
Phase 3: After the acquisition
The neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus (CS).
The conditioned stimulus can trigger the same response as the unconditioned stimulus can, even when it is not present.
When the involuntary response is triggered by a conditioned stimulus, it is called the conditioned response (CR).
The conditioned response is a learned response.
The conditioned response and unconditioned response are usually the same or similar responses.
E.g. After being paired repeatedly with food (US), the sound of the bell (NS), a previously neutral stimulus, could cause the dogs to salivate (CR) by themselves.
Properties of Classical Conditioning
Different results can be observed depending on the application of classical conditioning.
Here are the properties and different types of classical conditioning.
Normally, for classical conditioning to occur, the conditioned stimulus must be presented before the unconditioned stimulus.
When a conditioned stimulus comes before the unconditioned stimulus, the learning process is called forward conditioning2.
On the other hand, backward conditioning introduces the conditioned stimulus after the unconditioned stimulus ends.
There are three types of forward classical conditioning.
They affect the strength and effectiveness of learning differently.
- Delay – presents the CS, followed immediately by the US3.
- Trace – introduces a time gap between the end of the CS and the start of the US.
- Simultaneous – the two stimuli, CS and US, show up and disappear at the same time.
Associative learning is usually stronger and faster when delay conditioning is used, compared to trace conditioning.
As the gap in trace conditioning is lengthened, it becomes harder to form an association4.
In most situations, delay and trace conditionings perform better than simultaneous and backward conditioning.
Research also shows that backward conditioning doesn’t work in many situations5.
- Extinction – stopping previously conditioned responses.
In Pavlov’s experiment, if he stops giving his dogs food when he rings the bell, the dogs will eventually stop salivating at the sound.
- Spontaneous recovery – the sudden return of the previously extinct behavior.
After the learned behavior is extinct, it may return suddenly, and this phenomenon is called spontaneous recovery.
- Extinction burst – a temporary increase in frequency, duration, or magnitude of the extinct behavior.
Sometimes, during the extinction process, conditioned behavior may temporarily increase instead of decrease because the individual is trying to bring back the unconditioned stimulus.
Stimulus & Fear Conditioning
- Stimulus generalization – when a new stimulus similar to the conditioned stimulus can evoke the same conditioned response without the need to condition.
- Stimulus discrimination – is the opposite of generalization. It’s the ability to discern between two similar stimuli.
The infamous Little Alert experiment demonstrates the concept of stimulus generalization well.
In this controversial study, researcher John B. Watson conditioned baby Albert to be afraid of a white rat (CS) by pairing it with a frightening clanging sound (US).
After repeatedly making a loud sound whenever the child touched the animal, baby Albert became scared simply by seeing the animal (CR).
Watson found that the baby’s fear of the white rat wasn’t limited to only white rats.
The baby also became scared of other small animals, such as white rabbits or dogs.
The poor child also feared soft white objects such as white cotton balls.
So the fear of one stimulus was generalized to the fear of other stimuli that shared similar properties.
Fear conditioning doesn’t always require repetitions to form.
Sometimes, one traumatic experience is enough to create associative learning and generalization to other stimuli.
Here is another example of classical conditioning in everyday life.
When driving through an intersection, you were hit by a car that ran a red light and severely injured.
You are now fear-conditioned to feel nervous whenever you drive towards an intersection, any intersection, not just the one you got hit in.
The anxiety can be so high that you never want to drive again.
That is how stimulus generalization creates anxiety disorders.
Classical conditioning created by an extreme aversive event like this can be very powerful and result in phobia, panic disorder, or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)7–9.
Studies have shown that some patients with PTSD have lower stimulus discrimination6 leading to difficulty in extinction.
- First-order – learning is obtained by associating a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned stimulus.
- Second-order conditioning – learning by pairing a neutral stimulus with a stimulus that has previously been converted into a conditioned stimulus through first-order conditioning.
- Higher-order conditioning – learning is acquired by pairing a neutral stimulus with another stimulus previously conditioned. Higher-order conditioning is intrinsically weaker than its first-order counterpart. But the strength can be increased by using a robust unconditioned stimulus7.
There are three phases in second-order conditioning.
In the first training phase, a CS1-conditioned stimulus is presented before the unconditioned stimulus (US) to establish a conditional relationship.
In the second phase, a second conditioned stimulus (CS2) is followed by CS1 so that, finally, CS2 evokes the same conditioned response (CR) even though CS2 was never directly paired with the US8.
Second-order and higher-order classical conditioning are frequently employed in consumer product marketing.
For example, a sports personality is associated with an exciting game.
When a product company uses a sports personality to promote its product, it aims to foster associations between the product and the positive feelings from attending an exciting sports game5.
How Taste Aversion is Acquired
To survive in a world with varying food types and sources, humans and animals are wired to learn which food is safe and which is not.
When you eat a sickness-inducing food (US) that causes nausea (UR), the combination of the smell and taste of food (CS) becomes associated, and you learn to avoid or dislike food with that smell and taste.
Taste aversion learning is one of the strongest responses that can affect human behavior.
It only takes a single instance of the condition because if it signals ‘danger’, you have the last chance to refrain from ingesting the food9.
Final Thoughts on Classical Conditioning
Real-life examples of classical conditioning often occur unconsciously.
Even though it can be beneficial when used appropriately, there is a good reason why behaviorism has fallen out of favor – it is too simplistic10.
Pavlov’s theory originates from extensive research done on lab animals.
But humans are not lab animals.
Learning by association is a lot more complicated when applied to humans because our behavior is often motivated by more than just the environment.
For instance, over-praising may not be a good thing.
To account for conditioning in voluntary behavior, American psychologist B.F. Skinner proposed the operant conditioning theory.
Later, Skinner became the founder of behaviorism, and Pavlov’s law was an important pillar in behaviorism psychology.
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- 3.Han CJ, O’Tuathaigh CM, van Trigt L, et al. Trace but not delay fear conditioning requires attention and the anterior cingulate cortex. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Published online October 10, 2003:13087-13092. doi:10.1073/pnas.2132313100
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- 9.Welzl H, D’Adamo P, Lipp HP. Conditioned taste aversion as a learning and memory paradigm. Behavioural Brain Research. Published online November 2001:205-213. doi:10.1016/s0166-4328(01)00302-3
- 10.Cooper PA. Paradigm Shifts in Designed Instruction: From Behaviorism to Cognitivism to Constructivism. Educational Technology. 1993;33(5):12-19.