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 the 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 at the same time as the unconditioned stimulus1.
Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov, developed the concepts surrounding conditioned responses. Repetitive association between behaviors and stimuli can induce the behaviors through classical conditioning, which is also known as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning.
His research centers around classical conditioning and is best illustrated by ‘Pavlov’s dog.’2
Dogs typically release saliva as a physiological response when they see food. Food is a natural stimulus and salivation in response to food is an unconditioned response. This reflexive response is automatically induced without external aid, conditioning, or previous experiences.
However, the sound of 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 sound of the bell which is 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 one of the most famous classical conditioning experiments 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). Being back in 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 most dire circumstances5.
Behavior modification is a type of operant conditioning that 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.
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 over time. The behavior is believed to be extinct.
However, some conditioned responses, such as the fear response to needles, are harder to eliminate once learned9.
- 1.Pavlov IP. Conditioned reflexes: An investigation of the physiological activity of the cerebral cortex. ANS. Published online June 1, 2010. doi:10.5214/ans.0972-7531.1017309
- 2.Clark RE. The classical origins of Pavlov’s conditioning. Integr psych behav. Published online October 2004:279-294. doi:10.1007/bf02734167
- 3.Davis M, Schlesinger LS, Sorenson CA. Temporal specificity of fear conditioning: Effects of different conditioned stimulus–unconditioned stimulus intervals on the fear-potentiated startle effect. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Animal Behavior Processes. Published online 1989:295-310. doi:10.1037/0097-7403.15.4.295
- 4.Sehlmeyer C, Schöning S, Zwitserlood P, et al. Human Fear Conditioning and Extinction in Neuroimaging: A Systematic Review. Gendelman HE, ed. PLoS ONE. Published online June 10, 2009:e5865. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0005865
- 5.Jenkins K. II. Needle phobia: a psychological perspective. British Journal of Anaesthesia. Published online July 2014:4-6. doi:10.1093/bja/aeu013
- 6.Christofferson M, Sullivan AL. PRESERVICE TEACHERS’ CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT TRAINING: A SURVEY OF SELF-REPORTED TRAINING EXPERIENCES, CONTENT COVERAGE, AND PREPAREDNESS. Psychol Schs. Published online January 12, 2015:248-264. doi:10.1002/pits.21819
- 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