What is higher order conditioning
Higher order conditioning is a form of learning that occurs when a neutral stimulus is repeatedly paired with a conditioned stimulus that is already associated with a desired response through conditioning to become another conditioned stimulus itself.
Pavlovian conditioning or classical conditioning involves pairing a neutral stimulus with an intrinsically motivating unconditioned stimulus, or primary reinforcer, so that the neutral stimulus becomes a conditioned stimulus that can elicit a conditioned response. This associative learning forms the first order association.
When paired with the conditioned stimulus generated in first-order conditioning, another neutral stimulus acquires motivational value and becomes a second conditioned stimulus.
By following similar procedures, one can achieve higher order associative learning that is second-order or above1.
Second order stimulus can then be used to form yet another conditioned stimulus formed through higher order conditioning. However, these higher-order associations tend to produce weaker motivators.
Animal learning & behavior
Higher order conditioning is commonly seen in animal learning.
When Pavlov gave dogs food (unconditioned stimulus) and bell (neutral stimulus) together, he observed that dogs salivated (conditioned response) even when they only heard the bell (first order stimulus). The dogs learned to associate the bell with food.
Later, light could be paired with the bell and the light alone (second-order stimulus) could elicit salivation, too.
Higher order conditioning can be achieved when another neutral stimulus, such as a hand gesture, is paired with the tone to form a third conditioned stimulus2.
Sensory preconditioning is closely related to the higher order conditioning process.
Sensory conditioning involves conditioning the stimuli among themselves before conditioning the unconditioned stimulus to one of them.
Using the preceding example, sensory preconditioning pairs the tone and light before conditioning the light with food3.
Implications for behavior
The “Little Albert” experiment by John Watson, a classical conditioning psychologist, was most famous for making an infant boy afraid of a white rat by making an unpleasant noise whenever the rat appeared.
When Watson conducted a higher order conditioning experiment, he discovered that he could also generalize the association so that Albert began to fear other furry animals and objects4.
Mental health disorder
The re-experience of a traumatic event is a hallmark of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
PTSD may be maintained when trauma-relevant cues serve as unconditioned stimuli through second order association to maintain fear responses. These trauma reminders generalize to enhance emotional responses to many previously neutral cues and prevent extinction5.
Conditioning in advertising
Commercials and political campaigns frequently make use of the effects of conditioning.
Many television and radio advertisements feature famous sportscasters whose voices have been associated with exciting sports events for years. Through repeated pairings of the voices with the advertised product, feelings of excitement or positivity may become associated with the product through second-order conditioning6 and evaluative conditioning.
In the United States, the use of tobacco is one of the leading causes of preventable deaths.
Even though many smokers are motivated to quit, 95% relapse within a year after quitting. High order conditioning in smoking addiction may contribute to the difficulty of quitting completely.
When environmental cues are associated with nicotine, which is the unconditioned stimulus, the smoking-related stimuli become motivational salience even without explicit conditioning.
Multiple drug exposures contribute to enhanced second-order conditioning. The external stimuli can then evoke cravings and “nicotine wanting” through second-order conditioning in smokers7.
Sensory-based memories of events help animals select the correct behaviors to adapt to their environment. This adaptive, complex behavior, however, can also cause problems at times. One example is taste aversion.
When ingesting a food is followed by malaise such as nausea or stomachache, a first-order aversive conditioning between the ingested substance’s taste and the negative consequences quickly forms. The animals are then conditioned to reject further ingestion as a result of this conditioning of fear8.
Various contextual cues, such as the color or shape of the food, can also elicit an aversive reaction if they are associated with the taste through second-order learning.
Check out this article to learn more about the definition and examples of second order conditioning.
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