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What Is Classical Conditioning?

Medically Reviewed by Jabeen Begum, MD on November 25, 2021

Classical conditioning, also called Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning, is learning through association. This behavioral learning method was first studied in the late 19th century by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov. 

In the 1890s, Pavlov was experimenting with dogs, ringing a bell whenever they were fed. Over time, the dogs learned to associate a neutral stimulus (bell ringing) with a positive one (food). Pavlov also noticed that his dogs would often begin to salivate whenever they heard the footsteps of his assistant bringing them the food. This association between positive and neutral stimuli became the foundation of classical conditioning theory.

Eventually, Pavlov linked these behavioral associations to humans and spent the remainder of his career studying the phenomenon. 

What Is Classical Conditioning Theory?

Classical conditioning theory states that behaviors are learned by connecting a neutral stimulus with a positive one, such as Pavlov's dogs hearing a bell (neutral) and expecting food (positive). The learned behavior is called a conditioned response. Normal processes, like salivating when you smell food, is what's called an unconditioned response.

There are three stages in classical conditioning. Here's a brief look at each one.

Stage 1: Before conditioning. Something in the environment triggers a natural response in the subject. During this stage, no new behavior has been learned yet. This stage also includes a neutral stimulus, which doesn't affect the subject. 

Stage 2: During conditioning. This is the stage where the neutral stimulus becomes associated with the positive stimulus that caused the response during the first stage. In Pavlov's experiment, this stage involved ringing a bell when the dogs were fed. After repeated exposure, the dogs began to associate the bell with food and would salivate when they heard it, even if no food was present.

Stage 3: After conditioning. During the final stage of conditioning, the neutral stimulus is firmly associated with the unconditioned response. This creates a new behavior, or what's known as the conditioned response.

What Is the Little Albert Experiment?

Considered one of the "most ethically dubious experiments ever conducted," the Little Albert experiment was developed by psychologists John B. Watson and Rosalie Rayner, who first applied Pavlov's classical conditioning principles to human behavior.

In 1920, Watson and Rayner began their behavioral learning experiment with a 9-month-old boy named Albert. They tested Albert's reactions to various things in his environment, including a white rat, burning newspapers, and a hammer striking a four-foot steel bar just behind Albert's head. Because the sound of the hammer is what frightened Albert, it became the unconditioned stimulus, and fear became the unconditioned response.

When Albert was 11 months old, he was presented with the white rat. When he tried to pet it, the pipe was struck with the hammer, causing fear. The researchers performed this same process over the next few weeks until presenting Albert with the rat resulted in a fearful response. 

They reproduced these results with a rabbit, a dog, and several other stimuli that were previously neutral. At the end of the experiment, Albert presented a fear response for all of them.

What Are Some Examples of Classical Conditioning?

Classical conditioning isn't just related to food or fear. You see examples of this type of conditioning every day, though you may not know it or consciously think about it. Here are some examples of classical conditioning in daily life.

  • Every time you put on your shoes, your dog gets excited and runs to the front door. Your dog associates you putting on shoes with a walk, or maybe going for a car ride.
  • You always buy the same type of crackers for your baby's morning snack. When you pull the box of crackers out of the cupboard, your baby gets excited and reaches toward the box because they associate that box with snack time.
  • A certain perfume reminds you of your late grandmother. After her passing, smelling that perfume or similar scents make you sad because of its association with your grandmother.
  • Your demanding boss occasionally berates underperforming employees in his office. You feel nervous or agitated whenever your boss asks one of your co-workers into his office and closes the door because that's what he does whenever someone's in trouble.
  • You listen to some of your favorite music when you exercise. You don't generally enjoy working out, but eventually, you begin to relate the positive feelings you get from your playlist to working out.

Show Sources

SOURCES:

Simply Psychology: "Classical Conditioning," "Pavlov’s Dogs Study and Pavlovian Conditioning Explained."

Spielman, R. M., Jenkins, W. J., & Lovett, M. D. Psychology 2e. OpenStax, 2020.

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