Classical conditioning examples like Pavlov’s dogs are well-known psychological experiments, but you may not realize how they are part of your everyday life.
You can learn in both conscious and unconscious ways. Your behaviors, attitudes, ideas, and the absorption of new information can all be learned with or without your knowledge.
Classical conditioning is unconscious learning that is attributed to a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov. Today, classical conditioning is used in therapy to help people change negative behaviors, including substance use. You can also make use of the technique on your own or even with your pet.
Read on to find out more about classical conditioning, including how it works and examples of classical conditioning in your life.
What Is Classical Conditioning and Pavlov’s Theory?
Pavlov discovered classical conditioning by accident while he was researching dog digestion. He noticed the dogs’ reactions to being fed evolved based on stimuli in the test environment that weren’t related to the food.
Classical conditioning is also called Pavlovian conditioning.
At the beginning of the experiment, the dogs would salivate only when presented with food. Later, neutral noises, such as the food cart entering the testing area, made them salivate. Since the sounds always occurred before the dogs were fed, Pavlov wondered if the dogs were linking the sound to their food.
He set up an experiment where a bell would ring right before giving food to the dogs. The dogs soon started salivating after hearing the bell without seeing or hearing the food cart coming into the room. This discovery led Pavlov to develop the theory that behavior could be learned simply by introducing consistent stimuli.
The Pavlovian Impact
Classical conditioning is often considered the most important discovery in the history of psychology because it forms the basis of behavioral psychology. Classical conditioning can be used in different ways and in many industries—from helping people with mental health disorders to keeping domestic livestock safe from hungry coyotes.
Classical Conditioning Terms to Know
To fully understand classical conditioning, there are several terms to understand:
- Unconditioned stimulus: A stimulus that prompts a response in a natural, unlearned way. For example, your eyes automatically tear up when you cut into an onion. The onion is an unconditioned stimulus because the response it causes is not learned.
- Neutral stimulus: A stimulus in the environment that does not evoke any response by itself. However, it can be used later to trigger a response.
- Conditioned stimulus: A stimulus that used to be neutral. It became associated with a response because it was connected to a stimulus that evoked that response.
- Unconditioned response: An automatic response because it just happens naturally. For example, if you smell a food you like, your mouth may automatically start to water in anticipation of the meal.
- Conditioned response: A response that is learned based on a neutral-to-conditioned stimulus.
There are five key principles of classical conditioning:
- Acquisition: The initial stage of learning during which a response to a conditioned stimulus is established
- Extinction: The process in which a conditioned response is slowly unlearned because it’s no longer being paired with an unconditioned stimulus
- Spontaneous Recovery: The return of a conditioned response after a period without being exposed to the conditioned stimulus
- Generalization: The phenomenon of a stimulus that’s similar to the conditioned stimulus prompting a similar response
- Discrimination: The ability to tell the difference between the conditioned stimulus and similar stimuli
What Is the Classical Conditioning Process?
If the classical conditioning process is successful, a learned response will form based on unconscious associations between two different stimuli. There are three steps in this process: before conditioning, during conditioning, and after conditioning.
A naturally occurring unconditioned stimulus must be present before the conditioning occurs.
In the case of Pavlov’s research, the unconditioned stimulus was just presenting the dogs with food. The food being presented to the dogs led to an unconditioned response—the dogs began to salivate. The response was automatic, not learned.
A neutral stimulus is also present but has not yet evoked any response. The neutral stimulus needs to be paired with the unconditioned stimulus for it to lead to a response.
How Is Classical Conditioning Different From Operant Learning?
Classical and operant conditioning are not the same. Classical conditioning uses stimuli to help evoke an involuntary response. Operant conditioning uses behavior and consequences as a way of conditioning. Operant conditioning involves rewards for good behaviors and punishment for bad behaviors.
The second phase of classical conditioning is the pairing of an unconditioned and neutral stimulus to drive a response.
In Pavlov’s experiment, he used a bell as a neutral stimulus. Presenting the food to the dogs was the unconditioned stimulus.
When the dogs heard the bell and were then presented with food, they unconsciously formed a connection between the two stimuli. The neutral stimulus—the bell—evolved into a conditioned stimulus. The dogs then began to respond to the bell in the same way that they had when given food because they viewed the bell as part of the process.
Once conditioning has occurred and an association is made between the unconditioned and conditioned stimulus, the unconditioned stimulus can be removed from the equation, and the response will be the same. The response is now triggered by using the conditioned stimulus alone.
For example, the dogs in Pavlov’s experiment began to salivate when the bell rang because they had started associating the sound with getting fed.
Real-World Examples of Classical Conditioning
There are many areas in which classical conditioning is used today, including mental health treatment, education, and pet training.
Classical conditioning has many applications in mental health because it can help understand the development of certain disorders and more effectively treat them.
For example, classical conditioning may help with:
Some therapies, like exposure and aversion therapy, work by counter-conditioning responses.
For example, in exposure therapy, a person with a phobia is exposed to what they fear in a safe environment. They repeat exposures to the subject of their phobia until they are no longer afraid of it.
In aversion therapy, a person learns to associate something negative with a behavior they want to stop. For example, if a person misuses alcohol, they could be given a medication that causes them to get sick every time they drink it. The goal is for the negative response (getting sick from the medication) to condition them to no longer want alcohol.
In school systems, classical conditioning can help students develop positive associations with their learning experiences.
For example, if a student needs to give a presentation in front of the class but has anxiety about it, a teacher can create positive stimuli associated with public speaking. In time, the student may come to associate public speaking with a positive environment rather than one that makes them anxious.
Animal studies have shown that taste aversions improve the survival of a species. In one study, rats were exposed to radiation that caused them to feel nauseated. Following the exposure, the rats no longer liked flavored water when it was presented to them at the same time as the radiation.
The radiation acted like an unconditioned stimulus because it triggered feelings of automatic nausea in the rats. The flavored water was a conditioned stimulus because when the rats were exposed to only the flavored water without the radiation, they still felt nausea as they did when the radiation was present.
Advertisers often use classical conditioning to encourage consumers to buy their products.
For example, a commercial may show a product that people seem to enjoy using. Eventually, consumers come to associate happiness and fun with the product. The association of good feelings may alter a consumer’s perspective of the company and lead them to buy the product.
Advertising can also use music as a form of classical conditioning. Upbeat and joyful music will come to be associated with feelings of joy for the people who see the ad. Then, people will associate that company or product with positive emotions.
Classical conditioning has also been researched as a part of the placebo effect. One study looked at classical conditioning, the placebo effect, and pain modulation. It showed that a person can reduce their pain level when they’re given cues that are associated with lower levels of pain.
Classical conditioning is a highly popular tool used to train pets to be more obedient. For example, it can help your dog unconsciously engage in more desirable behaviors.
Classical conditioning in pets can also happen by accident. For example, if you pick up your keys before taking your dog for a walk one day, they may not initially react. If you start picking up your keys before every walk, though, the sound of keys jingling will trigger your dog to believe that they are going for a walk, which will cause a response (like getting excited and heading for the door).
Pavlov’s classical conditioning is very much a part of our lives today. The techniques are used in mental health, education, advertising, and pet training. Research has also looked at classical conditioning in taste aversions and the placebo effect.