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Classical Conditioning

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Classical Conditioning

People often like to think they control their behaviour. But the truth is, external forces often condition our reactions, sometimes without us even being aware of it. Suppose you are scared of thunder. Every time you see a bolt of lightning, you might wince in expectation of thunder noise. That conditioned response is what’s called in psychology classical conditioning.

The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning. Pavlov’s dogs inspired his experiment (1897) when he noticed the dogs salivating as soon as his assistant opened their cage doors because they associated open doors with receiving food.

Pavlov (1897) decided to test this hypothesis by conducting a new experiment in which each time the dogs were given food (stimulus 1), a bell sounded (stimulus 2), and the dogs slowly learned that the ringing of a bell was synonymous with food (new learned response). He observed and investigated the factors that can influence the strength and speed of learning by association and how they can provide explanations for some behaviours in humans, such as neurosis.

What is classical conditioning in psychology?

First, let's untangle the definition of classical conditioning.

Classical conditioning involves the association of two stimuli to elicit a new learned response in animal and human behaviour. It can also be referred to as learning by association or learning by conditioning.

According to John Watson (1913), classical conditioning explains all aspects of human psychology based on Pavlov’s findings and observations.

Classical Conditioning Pavlov dogs StudySmarterPavlov’s classical conditioning of dogs, Katarina Gadže, StudySmarter Originals (Made in Canva)

Pavlov's classical conditioning research

In the 1890s, Pavlov studied salivation in dogs as an expectant response to being fed. He placed a small tube in each dog’s cheek to measure the amount of saliva when they were being fed. He expected the dogs to salivate at the sight of food, but instead, they salivated at the sound of the footsteps of his assistant, who was in charge of feeding them. He found that the dogs elicited a similar response to anything (lab assistant) paired with food. Pavlov researched this scientific discovery for many years.

Key terms in classical conditioning

A neutral stimulus is an event that does not elicit a response.An unconditional stimulus is an event that produces a natural or innate response.An unconditional (innate) response is an unlearned natural response to an unconditioned stimulus.The conditioned stimulus is an event that elicits a learned response.The conditioned response is a learned response elicited by conditioned stimuli.

Pavlov’s classical conditioning experiment

Pavlov based his study on the idea that some responses in dogs are innate and not learned. For example, dogs salivate naturally at the sight of food; they do not learn this response because it is naturally wired into them. Pavlov concluded from this observation that the unconditioned stimulus is the food, which leads to an unconditioned response, the dog’s salivation.


The unconditioned stimulus is food → The unconditioned response is salivation.


Pavlov strapped the dog into a harness attached to an apparatus that measured the rate and amount of salivation in three stages.

  1. The dog’s salivation was measured once when only ringing the bell.


Neutral stimulus (bell) → No conditioned response.


  1. He again measured the saliva when giving food to the dog.

  2. Pavlov measured saliva when he rang the bell and presented the food at the same time.

These steps were repeated several times to condition the dogs to learn this association. The dog’s saliva levels were high after this conditioning with just the ringing of the bell, but without food. This step was crucial to measure the strength of the learned response. The neutral stimulus now became the conditioned stimulus.


Conditioned stimulus (bell) → Conditioned response (salivation).

According to Pavlov, a conditioned response can only be learned if both stimuli occur at the same time. If there is a large time difference between the occurrence of the conditioned stimulus (bell) and the unconditioned stimulus (food), the association cannot be learned. This time difference is called temporal contiguity.

Evaluation of classical conditioning

Pavlov greatly contributed to the theory of classical conditioning, which many researchers replicated after him. Although Pavlov’s theory formed the basis of classical conditioning, researchers who came after him added some important arguments for and against this theory.

  • The theory of classical conditioning is considered scientific because Pavlov showed that it provided empirical evidence through a controlled experiment.
  • John Watson (1913), in his Little Albert experiment (little Albert was conditioned to fear a rat), showed that classical conditioning explains all aspects of human psychology based on Pavlov’s findings and observations.
  • Pavlov’s experiment supports the claim that our learning depends mainly on our environment. He rules out the possibility that we can learn some behaviours through the interaction of nature (biological) and the environment (cultivated).
  • Classical conditioning is easily tested in a controlled laboratory setting. However, it may not apply to and explain complex human behaviours such as problem solving and memory.
  • Classical conditioning is deterministic, however, in that it constrains the individual’s free will with respect to the response to be learned, just as little Albert had to learn to fear a rat in John Watson’s experiment (1913).

Classical Conditioning - Key takeaways

  • The Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in 1897.

  • In classical conditioning, two stimuli are combined to elicit a new, learned response in animal and human behaviour.

  • Pavlov based his study on the idea that some responses in dogs are innate and not learned.

  • Pavlov (1897) found that each time dogs were given food (stimulus 1) and heard a bell ring (stimulus 2), they slowly learned that a ringing bell was equivalent to food (new learned response).

  • The theory of classical conditioning is considered scientific because it is a lab-controlled experiment with empirical evidence.

Frequently Asked Questions about Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is when two stimuli are paired together to create a new learned response in animal and human behaviour.

  • A baby observes you always take them out when wearing your backpack. The baby will now associate the backpack with going out.
  • We associate certain fragrances with certain people. If your father used a wood musk perfume, you would think of him when you smelled that scent.

Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in 1897.

Final Classical Conditioning Quiz

Question

What is a conditioned stimulus?

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Answer

A conditioned stimulus is an incident that produces a learned response.

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Question

How did Pavlov measure the salivation of dogs?

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Answer

He inserted a small tube in the cheeks of each dog, which he connected to a measuring apparatus.

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Question

Pavlov’s experiment was based on the idea that ____.

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Answer

Pavlov based his study on the idea that some responses in dogs are innate and not learned.

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Question

What were the three steps in Pavlov’s designed experiment?

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Answer

  1. The dog’s salivation was measured once when only ringing the bell.

  2. He again measured the saliva when giving food to the dog.

  3. Pavlov measured saliva when he rang the bell and presented the food at the same time.

Show question

Question

What is an unconditioned response?

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Answer

The unconditional response is an unlearned natural response to an unconditioned stimulus.

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Question

What is a neutral stimulus?

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Answer

A neutral stimulus is an incident that does not produce any response.

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Question

Whom did Pavlov dogs associate with food?

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Answer

The lab assistant.

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Question

Name John Watson's (1913) study.

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Answer

The name of the study was Little Albert, named after little Albert, who he conditioned to fear white rats.

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Question

Pavlov (1897) rules out the ______ of biological and environmental factors in his research.

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Answer

Interaction.

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Question

Provide advantages of classical conditioning.

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Answer

  • Classical conditioning theory is considered scientific because Pavlov showed that it provided empirical evidence through a controlled experiment.
  • John Watson (1913), in his Little Albert experiment (little Albert was conditioned to fear a rat), showed that classical conditioning explains all aspects of human psychology based on Pavlov’s findings and observations.

Show question

Question

Provide disadvantages of classical conditioning.

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Answer

  • Classical conditioning may not apply to and explain complex human behaviours such as problem solving and memory.
  • Classical conditioning is deterministic, however, in that it constrains the individual’s free will with respect to the response to be learned, just as little Albert had to learn to fear a rat in John Watson’s experiment (1913).

Show question

Question

Pavlov once measured the dog's saliva when ringing the bell but without food. What is the neutral stimulus in this statement, and what kind of response did it generate? 

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Answer

The bell was the neutral stimulus and it generated an unconditional response.

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Question

What is temporal contiguity?

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Answer

According to Pavlov, a conditioned response can only be learned if both stimuli occur at the same time. If there is a large time difference between the occurrence of the conditioned stimulus (bell) and the unconditioned stimulus (food), the association cannot be learned. This time difference is called temporal contiguity.

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Question

What animal made up the sample of Pavlov’s study?

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Answer

 His dogs.

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Question

When was Pavlov’s research on classical conditioning conducted?

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Answer

In 1897.

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