What Is Classical Conditioning Psychology?

By: Patricia Oelze

Updated March 14, 2020

Medically Reviewed By: Lauren Guilbeault

Classical conditioning is a form of learning that was developed by the Russian physiologist, Ivan Pavlov in the early 20th century. It is also called Pavlovian conditioning because it was discovered by Pavlov. The way it works is that two different forms of stimuli are connected to produce a newly learned response. This form of psychology is now known as behaviorism, which is based on the idea that the environment can shape behavior and that all learning happens through interactions with your environment.

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Classica Conditioning Psychology: Pavlov's Dogs

If you have never heard of Pavlov, then you may not know about Pavlov's dogs. No, these were not his personal pooches he kept as pets. These canines were laboratory animals used in testing his theory. Although he did start with his dog, Circa. In the late 1800s, Pavlov was working with dogs trying to determine why dogs salivated when being fed and he accidentally discovered the classical conditioning response. Pavlov had hypothesized that the canines would salivate when they were given their food, and a small tube was placed into their cheek to measure it. However, it was found that over time, the dogs started drooling before they got their food. They would salivate when they heard the footsteps of the person bringing them the food.

Conditioned Response

After recording this reaction many times, Pavlov decided to try and condition the dogs to another stimulus and see if the salivating response could be learned. He used a clicking metronome to see if the dogs would salivate when hearing it and, of course, they did not (before conditioning). However, when Pavlov introduced the metronome clicking every time the dogs were fed for several weeks, he tried an experiment (during conditioning). He once again introduced the metronome clicking to see if the dogs would start salivating and they did, proving that his conditioning response worked (after conditioning). He went on to use other stimuli to see if he could condition the dogs to other noises such as the ringing of a bell, which worked just as well as the footsteps and metronome clicking.

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So, what does that mean for us human beings? There are three stages of classical conditioning, which are before conditioning, during conditioning, and after conditioning.

  • Before conditioning is when the unconditioned stimulus produces an unconditioned response in a person. In other words, something in the environment produced an automatic response that is unlearned (unconditioned) and is a natural response. For instance, the smell of vanilla may make you feel hungry, or the sound of birds is singing may make you happy.
  • During conditioning a stimulus that does not produce a response is associated with an unconditioned stimulus, making it the conditioned stimulus. For example, the smell of a certain perfume may be associated with a certain person who typically wears that scent.
  • After conditioning, the conditioned stimulus is associated with the unconditioned stimulus and creates a new conditioned response.

Five Key Principals of Classical Conditioning Counseling

Behaviorists have found some phenomena that are associated with classical conditioning that are essential in understanding the process itself. There are five key principals of classical conditioning, which include acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, stimulus generalization, and stimulus discrimination.

  • Acquisition is the first stage of learning when the response is established and strengthened. During this step, a neutral stimulus is combined with an unconditioned stimulus repeatedly. This causes an individual to associate the two and will begin to show behavior in response to the stimulus.
  • Extinction is the stage when the episodes of a conditioned response start to decrease or disappear This typically happens when an unconditioned stimulus is no longer linked to an unconditioned stimulus. If you continue to remove the conditioned stimulus from the unconditioned stimulus, the response will go away completely.
  • Spontaneous recovery happens on its own for no obvious reason. This is the learned response suddenly coming back after a period of extinction. For instance, if you have trained a dog to drool when you ring a bell and then stop reinforcing that behavior, the response eventually becomes extinct. However, if after some time you ring the bell and the dog drools, that is spontaneous
  • Stimulus generalization is when the conditioned stimulus causes a similar response after the original response has been established. In other words, the dog you have trained to drool when you ring a bell may also drool when he hears a similar sound such as a telephone or a doorbell.
  • Stimulus discrimination is the ability to separate a conditioned stimulus from other stimuli that have not been linked to the unconditioned stimulus. For instance, if the dog you trained to drool at the sound of a bell ringing could differentiate that sound from other similar sounds like a doorbell or telephone ringing, that would be stimulus discrimination.

Little Albert

But Ivan Pavlov's classical conditioning research did not stop with animals. Although it would be completely unethical to do today, some associates of Pavlov decided to apply his classical conditioning theory to human beings. Using a baby named Little Albert, a behaviorist named John B. Watson and his graduate student Rosalie Rayner decided to try to condition the fear response in the toddler. He was nine months old at the time, and the researchers showed Albert a group of stimuli that included burning newspapers, masks, a monkey, a rabbit, and a white rat.

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The White Rat

When first introduced, Little Albert did not show fear to any of these stimuli because he had no idea what they were. However, the next time the child was introduced to the white rat, Watson or Rayner would make a loud sound by hitting a steel pipe with a hammer. This scared the boy and caused him to start crying. After this was done several times, Little Albert would start to cry every time he saw the white rat. In this case, the rat was the neutral stimulus, the loud noise was the unconditioned response, fear was the unconditioned response, the white rat was the conditioned stimulus, and once again, fear was the conditioned response.

Criticisms Of The Experiment

Strangely, the researchers found that it was not just the rat that Little Albert feared as he started to fear many different white objects and furry objects as well. Although the Little Albert Experiment was one of psychology's most famous and is in many different psychology courses, it has been widely criticized for many reasons. For example, causing a child undue fear just to make a point is unethical. Also, Watson and Rayner did not carefully construct or develop the objective means for the process of evaluating Little Albert's reactions.

Classical Conditioning And Phobias

Similar to the Little Albert experiment, phobias and anxiety disorders can be caused by classical conditioning. For example, Little Albert being afraid of other white objects or furry objects because he was afraid of the loud noise heard when he saw the white rat. A phobia is an irrational fear of a situation, activity, or specific object. One example is a person who has a fear of driving an automobile because they once had a panic or anxiety attack while they were driving. However, experts have found that individuals do not develop a phobia to just anything. Even though some people can develop a driving phobia, but people are more likely to develop a phobia to an object such as bugs or spiders or places like closed spaces or heights.

Classical Conditioning And Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

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Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious anxiety disorder that may develop after an individual is exposed to a traumatic event such as a violent assault or attack, a natural disaster like a flood or earthquake, severe abuse, or a terrorist attack. The condition typically happens when a person develops an association between the things related to the traumatic event and the trauma itself. For example, an individual with PTSD who has been exposed to war may become afraid when they see a military uniform. Because of classical conditioning, the individual may have a panic attack when being exposed to or just thinking about the traumatic event. Knowing this, therapists and other mental health care professionals have discovered that exposing the individual to the conditioned stimulus (military uniforms) many times without the unconditioned response (war), they can reduce their fear of the uniforms.

Classical Conditioning And Addiction

So, what is so important about classical conditioning in psychology? Classical conditioning is beneficial in understanding how some types of addiction or drug dependency works. For instance, when someone uses a drug regularly for an extended period, the body compensates for it to counterbalance the effect of the drug. In return, the individual will need a larger amount of the substance to get the effects they desire. With this example, it is the environmental response (conditional stimuli) that causes your body to prepare itself for the drug (conditional response).

Online Therapy

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If you are suffering from some type of mental disorder or just have some concerns about your mental health, you should speak to a professional right away. They can help you determine whether you need treatment or not. Sometimes it can take a long time to get an appointment but with online therapy, you can talk to a professional anytime you need them. No appointment is necessary.


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