Monday, April 4, 2011

Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning

Within the psychological paradigm, several types of learning exist. The most basic form is associative learning which describes the process of making new associations between events in the environment ("Index of learning theories and models," 2011). There are two forms of associative learning: classical conditioning and operant conditioning. In behaviorism, classical conditioning was the first type of learning discovered, and so named "classical" conditioning. Ivan Pavlov made the initial discoveries through his studies of the digestive system of dogs when he became intrigued by the hungry dogs' eventual learned response to Pavlov and his assistants. His investigations then focused on the dogs' associative learning from which he established his theory of classical conditioning. Classical conditioning has since found application in human behavior, both in creating specific behaviors, and in psychological treatments, extinguishing its maladaptive forms, or replacing that which is maladaptive with a more appropriate response.

The Theory of Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning is a type of associative learning first studied by Ivan Pavlov ("Index of learning theories and models," 2011). Classical conditioning takes place with the repeated pairing of a stimulus with another stimulus, to evoke the response to the first stimulus with only the presentation of the second stimulus (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). Pavlov referred to the first stimulus as the unconditioned stimulus, which evoked an unconditioned response. It is important to note the unconditioned stimulus naturally and reflexively evokes an unlearned and unconditioned response (Huitt, n.d.). Pavlov called the second stimulus the neutral stimulus, which, with repeated pairing with the unconditioned stimulus, eventually became the conditioned stimulus by evoking a conditioned response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). The conditioned stimulus is originally a neutral stimulus that has no natural tendency to evoke a specific response, however, after the repeated pairing will evoke the same response as the original unconditioned stimulus. Pavlov identified an eventual cognitive association between the conditioned stimulus and the unconditioned stimulus through repeated pairing, and this association affects a behavioral response to the conditioned stimulus. He referred to this as the conditioned response (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009).

In the process Pavlov called extinction, if the conditioned stimulus is presented without the conditioned response, eventually the conditioned response will decrease or become extinguished (Huitt, n.d.). Once the conditioned response rate returns to a pre-conditioned frequency, the conditioning is extinguished. If the extinguished conditioned stimulus is paired with the conditioned response again, Pavlov demonstrated the spontaneous recovery of the cognitive association between the conditioned stimulus and conditioned response. In Classical conditioning generalization takes place when the conditioned stimulus becomes associated with similar or related stimuli that evoke the same conditioned response as the original conditioned stimulus (Huitt, n.d.). For example, in John Watson's experiment with Baby Albert, the child generalized his fear of the white rat to other white fluffy items such as beards, other white fluffy animals, etc. Discrimination takes place when one stimulus out of the class of generalized stimuli is too different from the original conditioned stimulus to cause the conditioned response.

The Chosen Scenario

I have chosen, as a hypothetical scenario, my desire to sell a toxic and addictive substance to naïve and innocent people by attracting them to it by making them think it will make them happy and beautiful. People are naturally attracted to beauty, enjoyment, and happiness, and the idea of people having fun together. I will make several commercials that portray attractive people laughing, enjoying each other's company, smiling, feeling warmth, and simple enjoyment and simultaneously, using my toxic product. By repeatedly pairing the idea of warmth, attractiveness, fun, and beauty with the toxic product, I will create a cognitive association between the positive experiences and the toxic product. Eventually, individuals will automatically associate the toxic product with positive feelings and will become attracted to and use my product for the same result of positive good feelings of warmth, happiness, and beauty. In this example, the unconditioned stimulus (US) is the good feelings, and the unconditioned response (UR) is attraction to these positive sensations and emotions. The toxic product is originally a neutral stimulus, not evoking any specific response. By repeatedly pairing the neutral stimulus (the toxic product) with the unconditioned stimulus (the positive sensations and emotions,) the neutral stimulus eventually becomes the conditioned stimulus (CS). Individuals will begin to automatically associate the toxic product with good feelings (CS), and become attracted to it. This attraction becomes the conditioned response (CR). Eventually, the toxic product will become attractive, but the unsuspecting people will not be able to identify the automatic cognitive association by which they are attracted to the product.

Table Illustrating Classical Conditioning Applied to My Scenario
UC >>>>> UR
US + CS >>>>>>>>>>> UR

CS >>>>>>>>>>>>>>> CR

US enjoyment, good feelings

UR attraction

CS toxic product

CR attraction to the toxic product


Classical conditioning is a form of associational learning and describes learning which has been acquired through experience (Olson & Hergenhahn, 2009). It is a natural, intrinsically motivated way humans and other organisms adapt to their environment. Classical conditioning takes place automatically and without cognitive awareness, and the conditioned responses are involuntary. This type of conditioning describes the process by which an organism creates a new association or a new relationship between two stimuli and the eventual response. Associative learning of this type is the basic parameter of how humans learned to adapt to their environment immediately and over time and enabled their evolution and their ability to accommodate their surroundings. Although learning takes other complex forms, humans and other organisms continue to learn through the fundamental associations in the process of classical conditioning.


Huitt, W. G. (n.d.). Classical Conditioning. Educational Psychology Interactive. Retrieved March 18, 2011, from

Index of learning theories and models. (2011, March). Learning Theories. Retrieved March 17, 2011, from

Olson, M. H., & Hergenhahn, B. R. (2009). An introduction to theories of learning (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson/Prentice Hall.

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