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Classical Conditioning

Classical Conditioning

By Saul McLeod, updated 2018


Classical conditioning (also known as Pavlovian conditioning) is learning through association and was discovered by Pavlov, a Russian physiologist. In simple terms, two stimuli are linked together to produce a new learned response in a person or animal.

John Watson proposed that the process of classical conditioning (based on Pavlov’s observations) was able to explain all aspects of human psychology.

Everything from speech to emotional responses was simply patterns of stimulus and response. Watson denied completely the existence of the mind or consciousness. Watson believed that all individual differences in behavior were due to different experiences of learning. He famously said:

"Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in and I'll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select - doctor, lawyer, artist, merchant-chief and, yes, even beggar-man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and the race of his ancestors” (Watson, 1924, p. 104).

Classical Conditioning Examples

There are three stages of classical conditioning. At each stage the stimuli and responses are given special scientific terms:

Stage 1: Before Conditioning:

In this stage, the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces an unconditioned response (UCR) in an organism.

In basic terms, this means that a stimulus in the environment has produced a behavior / response which is unlearned (i.e., unconditioned) and therefore is a natural response which has not been taught. In this respect, no new behavior has been learned yet.

For example, a stomach virus (UCS) would produce a response of nausea (UCR). In another example, a perfume (UCS) could create a response of happiness or desire (UCR).

This stage also involves another stimulus which has no effect on a person and is called the neutral stimulus (NS). The NS could be a person, object, place, etc.

The neutral stimulus in classical conditioning does not produce a response until it is paired with the unconditioned stimulus.

Stage 2: During Conditioning:

During this stage, a stimulus which produces no response (i.e., neutral) is associated with the unconditioned stimulus at which point it now becomes known as the conditioned stimulus (CS).

For example, a stomach virus (UCS) might be associated with eating a certain food such as chocolate (CS). Also, perfume (UCS) might be associated with a specific person (CS).

For classical conditioning to be effective, the conditioned stimulus should occur before the unconditioned stimulus, rather than after it, or during the same time. Thus, the conditioned stimulus acts as a type of signal or cue for the unconditioned stimulus.

Often during this stage, the UCS must be associated with the CS on a number of occasions, or trials, for learning to take place. However, one trail learning can happen on certain occasions when it is not necessary for an association to be strengthened over time (such as being sick after food poisoning or drinking too much alcohol).

Stage 3: After Conditioning:

Now the conditioned stimulus (CS) has been associated with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) to create a new conditioned response (CR).

For example, a person (CS) who has been associated with nice perfume (UCS) is now found attractive (CR). Also, chocolate (CS) which was eaten before a person was sick with a virus (UCS) now produces a response of nausea (CR).

Classical Conditioning in the Classroom

The implications of classical conditioning in the classroom are less important than those of operant conditioning, but there is a still need for teachers to try to make sure that students associate positive emotional experiences with learning.

If a student associates negative emotional experiences with school, then this can obviously have bad results, such as creating a school phobia.

For example, if a student is bullied at school they may learn to associate the school with fear. It could also explain why some students show a particular dislike of certain subjects that continue throughout their academic career. This could happen if a student is humiliated or punished in class by a teacher.

Critical Evaluation

Classical conditioning emphasizes the importance of learning from the environment, and supports nurture over nature. However, it is limiting to describe behavior solely in terms of either nature or nurture, and attempts to do this underestimate the complexity of human behavior. It is more likely that behavior is due to an interaction between nature (biology) and nurture (environment).

A strength of classical conditioning theory is that it is scientific. This is because it's based on empirical evidence carried out by controlled experiments. For example, Pavlov (1902) showed how classical conditioning could be used to make a dog salivate to the sound of a bell.

Classical conditioning is also a reductionist explanation of behavior. This is because a complex behavior is broken down into smaller stimulus-response units of behavior.

Supporters of a reductionist approach say that it is scientific. Breaking complicated behaviors down to small parts means that they can be scientifically tested. However, some would argue that the reductionist view lacks validity. Thus, while reductionism is useful, it can lead to incomplete explanations.

A final criticism of classical conditioning theory is that it is deterministic. This means that it does not allow for any degree of free will in the individual. Accordingly, a person has no control over the reactions they have learned from classical conditioning, such as a phobia.

The deterministic approach also has important implications for psychology as a science. Scientists are interested in discovering laws which can then be used to predict events. However, by creating general laws of behavior, deterministic psychology underestimates the uniqueness of human beings and their freedom to choose their own destiny.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 21). Classical conditioning. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html

APA Style References

Pavlov, I. P. (1897/1902). The work of the digestive glands. London: Griffin.

Watson, J. B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist views it. Psychological Review, 20, 158–177.

Watson, J.B. (1913). Psychology as the behaviorist Views It. Psychological Review, 20, 158-177.

Watson, J. B. (1924). Behaviorism. New York: People's Institute Publishing Company.

How to reference this article:

McLeod, S. A. (2018, August 21). Classical conditioning. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html

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