What Is a Conditioned Response?
A conditioned response (CR) is triggered by a conditioned stimulus (CS) after conditioning. Before conditioning, a CS is a neutral stimulus (NS) that cannot elicit a target response. After being repeatedly paired with an unconditioned stimulus (US), the NS becomes a CS that can trigger a CR.
CR doesn’t occur naturally. They are learned over time through associative learning using classical conditioning or operant conditioning. The conditioning process typically involves presenting a neutral stimulus just before or simultaneously with the unconditioned stimulus1.
Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, developed the concepts surrounding conditioned responses. Through his research on dog digestion, Pavlov discovered that repetitive associations between behaviors and stimuli could induce a learned behavior through classical conditioning. This concept is also known as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning.
His studies center around classical conditioning and are best illustrated by ‘Pavlov’s dog.’2
Dogs typically release saliva as a physiological response triggered by the sight or smell of food. Food is a natural stimulus, and salivation in response to food is an unconditioned response. This reflex is automatically induced without external aid, conditioning, or a previous experience.
However, a ringing bell does not naturally cause dogs to salivate.
In his conditioning experiments, Pavlov repeatedly paired the ringing bell with food to generate the same biological response. The dogs were then trained to salivate at the bell’s sounds, a conditioned, automatic response.
Conditioned Response vs. Unconditioned Response
The main difference between an unconditioned response and a conditioned response is that an unconditioned response is a natural response caused by an unconditioned stimulus whereas a conditioned response is a learned behavior by repeatedly presenting a neutral stimulus with the unconditioned stimulus3.
For example, a dog salivating on seeing food is an unconditioned response. It is a biologically potent response that doesn’t require learning. Salivating on hearing a bell is a conditional response because a bell’s sound does not normally trigger salivation. It is only after the conditioning procedure that it becomes a conditioned stimulus and salivating on hearing the bell becomes a conditioned response.
This ringing noise began as a neutral stimulus (NS) and eventually became a conditioned stimulus (CS). The upcoming section explores more examples of this fantastic phenomenon.
Conditioned Response Examples
Pavlov’s dog is the most famous classical conditioning experiment in contemporary psychology.
Here are more examples of real-life conditioned responses.
Fear and Phobias
Fear conditioning is a classical conditioning process essential for detecting danger, initiating self-protective mechanisms, and ensuring species survival.
Misguided fear conditioning, however, can transform initially innocuous stimuli into threatening and fear-inducing stimuli, resulting in maladaptive behaviors or disorders (CR) such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), phobias, or panic disorder4.
In fear conditioning, a single cs-us pairing is often enough to create strong feelings of fear. This aversive learning is powerful and the undesirable conditioned responses can significantly affect a person throughout life.
For example, a child was held down while receiving vaccinations (US). He learned a paired association of a needle plus a doctor (CS) equals pain and distress (UR). Returning to that situation (conditioning situation) produces distress (CR), causing sufferers to avoid it altogether. When needle phobia is severe, patients may not seek help even in the direst circumstances5.
Behavior modification is a type of operant conditioning in behaviorism. It is often used to manage student behavior in classrooms6.
For instance, teachers can give points (reinforcers) to students who show desirable behaviors (CR) in class7.
Humans are not the only species that can be conditioned. Animals can be trained to adopt desired behaviors as conditioned responses8.
For example, when a dog performs a trick as a correct response (CR), a treat is given to reinforce the behavior.
In Stimulus Generalization
Stimulus generalization is an individual’s tendency to respond in the same way to similar stimuli that are not identical to the original stimulus.
When it occurs, a similar stimulus acts as a conditioned stimulus to cause a conditioned response.
For example, a person who has uneasiness going to the dentist feels the jitters when they go to any dentist.
In Stimulus Discrimination
Stimulus discrimination is distinguishing between similar things and responding differently to them. Conditioned responses will result from some stimuli but not others.
For instance, people with anxiety respond to different types of triggers differently. One patient may show nervousness as a conditioned response when they give a presentation in front of a noisy crowd, but they don’t when doing it in a quiet place.
Extinction of a Conditioned Response
Conditioned responses aren’t natural. They are induced and learned over time. As a result, some conditioned responses may fade over time, especially due to a lack of reinforcement. This process is called extinction.
If Pavlov’s dog is repeatedly not given food after ringing the bell, the association between the sound and food may disappear after a number of times. The behavior is believed to be extinct.
However, some conditioned responses, such as the fear response to needles, are harder to eliminate once learned9.
Spontaneous recovery is the reappearance of the conditioned response that was previously extinct.
For example, a person who quit smoking for several months starts smoking again after being around friends who smoke. Smoking was a previously learned behavior, and the person successfully quit. But this conditioned response returns when smoking friends tempt the person.
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- 7.Filcheck HA, McNeil CB, Greco LA, Bernard RS. Using a whole-class token economy and coaching of teacher skills in a preschool classroom to manage disruptive behavior. Psychol Schs. Published online 2004:351-361. doi:10.1002/pits.10168
- 8.McKinley S, Young RJ. The efficacy of the model–rival method when compared with operant conditioning for training domestic dogs to perform a retrieval–selection task. Applied Animal Behaviour Science. Published online May 2003:357-365. doi:10.1016/s0168-1591(02)00277-0
- 9.Barad M, Gean PW, Lutz B. The Role of the Amygdala in the Extinction of Conditioned Fear. Biological Psychiatry. Published online August 2006:322-328. doi:10.1016/j.biopsych.2006.05.029