Sometimes, the most profound insights emerge from the most unanticipated sources. This was certainly the case with Pavlov’s famous experiments, which started as an exploration into the digestive system of dogs.
These experiments led to groundbreaking revelations about human behavior, becoming one of the foundational theories in learning and paving the way for new avenues of research in modern psychology.
Who is Pavlov
In the 19th century, Ivan Pavlov, a Russian physiologist, conducted an experiment to study the digestive processes. This groundbreaking work earned him the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1904.
Even though he won a prestigious award, what Pavlov is most remembered for are his surprising discoveries in his iconic experiments with dogs. These discoveries have had a big impact on the way people understand psychology and education today.1
What is Pavlov’s dog
When Pavlov set out to study dog digestion, he noticed that his dog had an increase in salivation whenever food was placed in front of them.
But later, he observed that the salivary response occurred slightly before the presentation of food.
Pavlov realized that the salivation in dogs was a response to the presence of the technician who fed them and not just the presence of food.
Intrigued by this observation, he introduced a metronome into the experiment, making a clicking sound before the food delivery.
Even when no food was presented, the anticipatory salivation began at the sound of the metronome’s click, demonstrating a learned association between the sound and the expectation of dog food.
Pavlov’s dog experiment laid the groundwork for the understanding of classical conditioning in psychology.2
This Pavlovian conditioning, later called classical conditioning, is a type of associative learning. It involves learning to associate an unconditioned stimulus with a neutral stimulus so that this neutral stimulus turns into a conditioned stimulus that can induce a similar physiological response.
Here are some concepts that form the basis of conditioning.
Unconditioned Stimulus (UCS): a cue, item, or event that produces an automatic response. For example, the food presented to Pavlov’s dogs caused them to salivate. This is natural and does not need to be trained for.
Conditioned Stimulus (CS): what a neutral stimulus becomes after training. In Pavlov’s experiment, the metronome became the conditioned stimulus after the conditioning.
Unconditioned Response (UR): an automatic, reflexive response, such as drooling when giving the dogs food.
Conditioned Response (CR): a learned response to the conditioned stimulus, also known as Pavlovian response or conditioned reflex. For example, the dog’s drooling after hearing the metronome is a conditional response.
Classical conditioning procedure: This involves pairing an unconditioned stimulus with a neutral stimulus, typically at the same time or just before the unconditioned stimulus. Through repeated association, the neutral stimulus can elicit a conditional reflex similar to the unconditioned stimulus.3
Issues in conditioning
Classical conditioning pervasively impacts our everyday lives without us even realizing it.
From shaping consumer preferences in advertising to aiding therapeutic interventions in mental health, its applications are vast and varied. However, like any powerful principle, classical conditioning comes with both benefits and potential drawbacks.
Marketing and advertising
Advertisers often pair products with stimuli that evoke positive emotions to create evaluative conditioning.
For example, products are more memorable when repeatedly paired with a distinctive logo or jingle. Such a recognizable symbol or tune can trigger thoughts of the product even when encountered outside of the advertising context. Conditioning helps products and brands be more readily recognizable.4
Another example is celebrity endorsements. Utilizing famous personalities to endorse products creates an association between the celebrity’s attributes and the promoted product. If people admire the celebrity, those positive feelings may transfer to the product, influencing purchasing decisions.
In marketing, the association of stimuli is used to manipulate consumers into viewing products differently based on their associations rather than the actual products.
This may not sound too alarming. But what if the product is a political candidate running for an election?
This strategy can make voters link a candidate with specific values or ideas, even if the candidate doesn’t stand for them. The tactic can manipulate people into liking or disliking someone based on connections that might not even be real or true.5
Classical conditioning is commonly used in parenting.
When a child is sick, parents often comfort them with hugs, kind words, and special food that tastes good. After this happens a few times, the child might start to think of that comfort food as a sign of their mom’s or dad’s love.
As they grow up, this feeling can stay with them. The food, like chicken soup or warm cookies, becomes more than just something to eat. It turns into a reminder of love and safety. So, when they feel upset or stressed, even as adults, they might want that comfort food again.
In some cases, classical conditioning may show up in unexpected ways.
For example, if a child is often scolded in a specific room, they may start to feel fear or anxiety whenever they enter that place. This emotional response is the result of fear conditioning.6
The fear might even spread to other rooms that look or feel similar to the conditioning situation, a phenomenon known as stimulus generalization.
Over time, the extent of conditioning may be so deeply ingrained that it leads to psychological disorders, including phobia or anxiety disorder. These aversive conditioning effects can be debilitating and interfere with the child’s everyday life.
- 1.Clark RE. The classical origins of Pavlov’s conditioning. Integr psych behav. Published online October 2004:279-294. doi:10.1007/bf02734167
- 2.Windholz G. Ivan P. Pavlov: An overview of his life and psychological work. American Psychologist. Published online September 1997:941-946. doi:10.1037/0003-066x.52.9.941
- 3.Barron AB, Hebets EA, Cleland TA, Fitzpatrick CL, Hauber ME, Stevens JR. Embracing multiple definitions of learning. Trends in Neurosciences. Published online July 2015:405-407. doi:10.1016/j.tins.2015.04.008
- 4.Tsiotsou RH, Alexandris K, Bettina Cornwell T. Using evaluative conditioning to explain corporate co-branding in the context of sport sponsorship. International Journal of Advertising. Published online January 2014:295-327. doi:10.2501/ija-33-2-295-327
- 5.Albertson B, Guiler K. Conspiracy theories, election rigging, and support for democratic norms. Research & Politics. Published online July 2020:205316802095985. doi:10.1177/2053168020959859
- 6.Meulders A, Vansteenwegen D, Vlaeyen JWS. The acquisition of fear of movement-related pain and associative learning: A novel pain-relevant human fear conditioning paradigm. Pain. Published online November 2011:2460-2469. doi:10.1016/j.pain.2011.05.015