A Brief Look At The Science Of Respondent Behavior

By Julia Thomas

Updated December 06, 2018


Respondent behavior is the same type of behavior that is brought about by classical conditioning. That is, just like the dogs in Ivan Pavlov's experiments that learned to salivate when they heard a bell, anyone engaging in respondent behavior has been trained to do so. How does that work? It all starts with an involuntary response.

The Unconditioned Response

When Pavlov's dogs were given meat powder, their reflexive response was to salivate. No one had to teach them that, of course. It was the most natural response they could have had. Scientists call this an Unconditioned Response.

The Neutral Stimulus

The bell in the experiments was what scientists call a neutral stimulus. Dogs' don't naturally have any response at all to a bell. Unless they learn to associate it with something specific, it means nothing to them.

Establishing an Association Between the Unconditioned Response and the Neutral Stimulus


Pavlov's dogs learned to salivate to the sound of the bell ringing because that was how he trained them to respond. He did this be presenting both the ringing bell and the meat powder together. Each time these two stimuli were paired together this way, the dogs became more accustomed to the way the bell signaled when they would receive food.

The Learned Behavior

In this situation, salivation was the respondent behavior. The dogs salivated each time they heard the bell ring. This is not a natural, reflexive behavior for a dog. It is one that can only be learned through classical conditioning.

Do Humans Learn in the Same Way?

It's easy to imagine a dog being trained with a ringing bell and some meat powder. What may be more difficult to imagine is how you might learn to associate a neutral stimulus with an unconditioned human response. But, if the response being trained is an automatic response that happens without you even being aware of it, humans can also be trained through classical conditioning. Types of automatic responses include not only salivation, but nausea, heart rate, reflexive motor responses, and even the dilation of your eyes.

When Does Respondent Behavior Become a Problem?

Often, when something traumatic happens over and over, people pick up information from the environment where the traumatic event always takes place. For example, someone who was assaulted on their way home from work may feel their heart rate soar whenever they enter the parking garage. Since they have to go there every day for work, they might begin to skip work because they feel very physically uncomfortable there. They could even lose their job because of the respondent behavior they've incidentally learned.


Fortunately, professional therapists are available to help you overcome the conditioning you have received. They can help you work toward the extinction of the behavior that happens when the association between the neutral stimulus and the unconditioned response are no longer paired together. Talking to a licensed therapist can help you overcome these associations and begin to live freely again.

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