Higher Order Conditioning

By Charlotte Nickerson, published May 12, 2022 | Fact Checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD


Key Points

  • Higher order conditioning, also known as second order conditioning, occurs when a conditioned stimulus becomes associated with a new unconditioned stimulus.
  • The corresponding phenomenon in operant conditioning is called secondary reinforcement.
  • These higher order conditioned stimuli are able to elicit responses even when the original unconditioned stimulus is no longer present.
  • This process can result in complex behavioral patterns, such as taste aversion and fears.
  • Higher order conditioning is differentiated from evaluative conditioning in its more complex and - in theory - more likely to remain - a multistep conditioning process.

Definition

In classical conditioning, higher order conditioning, otherwise known as second-order conditioning, is a procedure in which the conditioned stimulus of one experiment acts as the unconditioned stimulus of another.

The conditioned stimulus (CS1) is first paired with the unconditioned stimulus in the usual way, until the conditioned stimulus elicits a the conditioned response, then a new conditioned stimulus (CS2) is paired with the CS1, until the CS2 elicits the original conditioned response.

For example, after pairing a bell with food, and establishing the bell as a conditioned stimulus that elicits salivation (first order conditioning), a light could be paired with the tone.

If the light alone comes to elicit salivation, then higher order conditioning has occurred.

B. F. Skinner (1971) conducted some of the earliest experiments on higher-order conditioning in the 1930s.

higher order conditioning, otherwise known as second-order conditioning

Causes and Implications for Behavior

There are a number of theoretical models that attempt to describe how higher-order conditioning works.

These have a basis in associative learning theories. Among the most famous of these are (Honey & Dweyer, 2022):

  • The Rescorla-Wagner Model, which stipulates that higher order conditioning is due to the conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus) and unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) being associated with each other through a shared response.

    In other words, when the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are both present, they share a common response — in the above example, salivation. This shared response makes it more likely that the conditioned stimulus will elicit the same response as the unconditioned stimulus, even when they are not presented together.

  • The Model of Temporal Contiguity posits that higher order conditioning occurs because the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus are experienced close together in time.

    This proximity strengthens the association between the two stimuli, making it more likely that the conditioned stimulus will elicit the same response as  the Unconditioned Stimulus.

  • The Model of Inhibitory Processes suggests that higher order conditioning is the result of the conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus) inhibiting or suppressing the response to the unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus).

    In other words, when the conditioned stimulus is present, it prevents the unconditioned stimulus from eliciting its usual response.

    This suppression makes it more likely that the conditioned stimulus will elicit the same response as the unconditioned stimulus, even when they are not presented together.

  • The Model of Stimulus Substitution posits that higher order conditioning occurs because the conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus) comes to substitute for the unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus).

    In other words, the conditioned stimulus comes to stand in for the unconditioned Stimulus, and so elicits the same response.

Phases of Higher-Order Conditioning

Higher-order conditioning happens in three phases.

The first is acquisition, when the conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus) and unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) are paired together.

In the second phase, extinction, the conditioned stimulus is presented without the unconditioned stimulus.

In the final phase, spontaneous recovery, the Conditioned Stimulus is presented again after a period of time in which it was not present (Williams, 2002).

Acquisition

In the first phase of higher-order conditioning, the conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus) and unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus) are paired together.

For example, if a tone is paired with food, then the tone will come to elicit salivation.

This pairing of the conditioned stimulus and Unconditioned Stimulus is known as conditioning (Williams, 2002).

Extinction

As with first-order conditioning, higher-order conditioning is subject to extinction — that is, the conditioned response will disappear if the conditioned stimulus is no longer associated with the unconditioned stimulus.

However, higher-order conditioning is often more resistant to extinction than first-order conditioning (Williams, 2002).

In the second phase of higher-order conditioning, the conditioned stimulus is presented without the unconditioned stimulus.

For example, if the tone is presented without food, then it will no longer elicit salivation.

This is because the conditioned stimulus has become associated with the unconditioned stimulus (in this case, food), and so when the unconditioned stimulus is not present, the conditioned response (CR) — in this case, salivation — is also not elicited (Williams, 2002).

Spontaneous recovery

In the final phase of higher-order conditioning, the Conditioned Stimulus is presented again after a period of time in which it was not present.

For example, if the tone is presented again after a period of time in which it was not paired with food, then it will once again come to elicit salivation.

This is because the association between the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus has not been completely extinguished, and so the CR can still be elicited (Williams, 2002).

Evaluative vs. Higher-Order Conditioning

Evaluative conditioning (EC) refers to attitude change in an organism due to an object's pairing with positive or negative stimuli.

Adopting the terminology of Pavlovian conditioning, the former is called the conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus) and the latter as the unconditioned stimuli (unconditioned stimulus).

Attitude change can be measured in self-report, cognitive tasks (e.g., lexical decision task), and physiological indices.

Evaluative conditioning has been found to occur outside of conscious awareness, rapidly, and for both positive and negative unconditioned stimuli.

Evaluative conditioning is thought to underlie many advertisements and political campaigns (Martin & Levey, 1978).

In higher-order conditioning, the Conditioned Stimulus is itself a conditioned stimulus that has been associated with another unconditioned stimulus.

Meanwhile, in evaluative conditioning, the conditioned stimulus is an unconditioned stimulus that is being associated with another conditioned stimulus.

In other words, in higher-order conditioning, the Conditioned Stimulus comes to elicit the same response as the unconditioned stimulus, while in evaluative conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus comes to elicit the same response as the Conditioned Stimulus (Martin & Levey, 1978).

Higher-order conditioning is thought to be a more powerful form of learning than evaluative conditioning, because it involves two stages of conditioning (the conditioned stimulus being conditioned to the unconditioned stimulus, and then the unconditioned stimulus being conditioned to the conditioned stimulus).

Evaluative conditioning only involves one stage (the unconditioned stimulus being conditioned to the conditioned stimulus).

This means that higher-order conditioning is more likely to produce long-lasting attitude change than evaluative conditioning in an experimental context (Martin & Levey, 1978).

Higher-order conditioning in honeybees

Higher-order conditioning has been demonstrated in honeybees.

In one experiment, a conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus; sucrose) and unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus; quinine) were paired together.

The bees were then presented with the conditioned stimulus alone, and it was found that they showed a reduced proboscis extension reflex.

This means that the bees were less sensitive in their antennas when it came to determining whether or not they should extend their nectar-sucking proboscis when they were around a stimulus.

This shows that the bees had been higher-order conditioned: the conditioned stimulus (sucrose) had come to inhibit the response to the unconditioned stimulus (quinine) (Hussaini, Komiscke, Mennzel, & Lachnit, 2007).

In another experiment, a different conditioned stimulus (conditioned stimulus; sucrose) and unconditioned stimulus (unconditioned stimulus; quinine) were again paired together.

However, in this case, the conditioned stimulus was presented without the Unconditioned Stimulus.

It was found that the bees showed no reduction in their proboscis extension reflex.

This shows that the higher-order conditioning had been extinguished: the association between the conditioned stimulus and unconditioned stimulus had been broken, and so the conditioned stimulus no longer inhibited the response to the unconditioned stimulus (Hussaini, Komiscke, Mennzel, & Lachnit, 2007).

Fear Conditioning

Higher order conditioning has also been found to occur in humans.

For example, one study found that after participants were exposed to pictures of snakes and spiders paired with an unpleasant noise, they exhibited increased fear responses when shown pictures of the animals alone.

Conditioned emotional responses (CERs) can be elicited through higher order conditioning. For example, after pairing a picture of a snake with an unpleasant noise, the picture alone may elicit fear (Williams, 2002).

In Marketing

Second-order and higher-order classical conditioning are often employed in consumer product marketing.

For example, a company may pair its product with a celebrity endorser who is already associated with positive feelings.

In this way, the company's product comes to be associated with those positive feelings, and consumers are more likely to have positive attitudes towards the product (Schachtman, Walker, & Fowler, 2011).

Similarly, a company might pair a competitor's product with a negative stimulus in order to create a negative association.

For example, a company might associate its product with an unflattering picture of a competitor's product.

In this way, consumers will come to have negative associations with the competitor's product and positive associations with the company's own product, driving their purchase decisions (Schachtman, Walker, & Fowler, 2011).

Taste Aversion

Humans are wired to learn which food is safe and what is not safe. Say that someone eats a sickness-inducing food that gives them food poisoning.

They will likely feel nauseous, vomit, and have diarrhea. They will also learn to associate the taste, smell, or sight of that food with the sickness.

This is an example of higher-order conditioning: the taste (or smell or sight) of the food has become a conditioned stimulus that elicits the unconditioned response of sickness (Bond & Harland, 1975).

As a result of this higher-order conditioning, you are likely to develop a taste aversion for that food.

This means that you will no longer want to eat it, because you have learned that it makes you sick.

Taste aversions can be very powerful: even if someone is hungry, they may not want to eat the food if they have developed a strong feeling of disgust around it (Bond & Harland, 1975).

About the Author

Charlotte Nickerson is a member of the Class of 2024 at Harvard University. Coming from a research background in biology and archeology, Charlotte currently studies how digital and physical space shapes human beliefs, norms, and behaviors and how this can be used to create businesses with greater social impact.

Fact Checking

Content is rigorously reviewed by a team of qualified and experienced fact checkers. Fact checkers review articles for factual accuracy, relevance, and timeliness. We rely on the most current and reputable sources, which are cited in the text and listed at the bottom of each article. Content is fact checked after it has been edited and before publication.

This article has been fact checked by Saul Mcleod, PhD, a qualified psychology teacher with over 17 years' experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in psychology journals including Clinical Psychology, Social and Personal Relationships, and Social Psychology.

Cite this Article (APA Style)

Nickerson, C. (2022, May 12). Higher Order Conditioning . Simply Psychology. www.simplypsychology.org/higher-order-conditioning.html

References

Bond, N., & Harland, W. (1975). Higher order conditioning of a taste aversion. Animal Learning & Behavior, 3(4), 295-296.

Honey, R. C., & Dwyer, D. M. (2022). Higher-order conditioning: A critical review and computational model. Psychological Review.

Hussaini, S. A., Komischke, B., Menzel, R., & Lachnit, H. (2007). Forward and backward second-order Pavlovian conditioning in honeybees. Learning & Memory, 14(10), 678-683.

Martin, I., & Levey, A. B. (1978). Evaluative conditioning. Advances in Behaviour research and Therapy, 1(2), 57-101.

Schachtman, T. R., Walker, J., & Fowler, S. (2011). Effects of conditioning in advertising. Associative learning and conditioning theory: Human and non-human applications, 481-506.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Operant conditioning. The encyclopedia of education, 7, 29-33.

Williams, B. A. (2002). Conditioned reinforcement. Encyclopedia of psychotherapy, 495-502.