What Is a Classical Conditioning in Psychology?

Medically Reviewed on 5/4/2021

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Classical conditioning can play a significant role as behavioral therapies in treating the following conditions, which include treating phobias, treating anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Classical conditioning (Pavlovian or respondent conditioning) is a type of learning that has a major influence on behaviors. It was discovered by a Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov while studying the digestive system of dogs. Classical conditioning refers to learning that occurs when one stimulus (e.g., the bell) becomes associated with a particular result (e.g., food). This will influence the behavior of the dogs when they hear the bell. After the association, the previously neutral stimulus develops a response.

Pavlov, during his experiment, identified that:

  • The dogs started to salivate when they saw the owner feeding them entered the room, even though the dog had not received any food yet.
  • The dogs were salivating as they knew that they were about to be fed.
  • The dogs started to associate the arrival of their owner with the food that soon followed them.

He conducted an experiment where a bell rang before giving food to the dog. During conditioning, the dog started to associate the bell with food. After conditioning, the dog started to salivate as soon as the bell rang without even seeing food.

There are some terms associated with classical conditioning, which include:

  • Unconditioned stimulus: It refers to things that trigger a naturally occurring response. For example, food is an unconditioned stimulus.
  • Unconditioned response: It is a naturally occurring response that follows the unconditioned stimulus. For example, a dog salivating after seeing or smelling the food is an unconditioned response.
  • Conditioned stimulus: It is also known as the neutral stimulus. This occurs when the stimulus is presented repeatedly before the unconditioned stimulus to evoke the same response as an unconditioned response. For example, ringing the bell before giving food to the dog is a conditioned stimulus.
  • Conditioned response: This is the acquired response to the conditioned stimulus. For example, a dog salivating after hearing the bell is a conditioned response. It has a similar response as compared to an unconditioned response.
  • Extinction: This occurs when the conditioned stimulus is presented repeatedly without the unconditioned stimulus. Over time, there would be a reduction in responding. For example, if the bell is rung over and over without giving them food, the dog starts to unlearn its learned conditioning.
  • Generalization: It refers to the tendency to respond to stimuli that resembled the original conditioned stimulus. For instance, dogs began to salivate at sounds resembling the bells because they generalized what they learned.
  • Discrimination: It is the tendency to respond differently to stimuli that are similar but not identical. For example, the dogs would not respond to honks that are similar to bells but not identical.

What are the examples of classical conditioning?

There are three stages of classical conditioning. We will describe each stage with an example:

  • Stage 1: Before conditioning:

In this stage, the unconditioned stimulus generates an unconditioned response. The response is natural and does not require any training.

For example, a perfume could create a response of happiness or desire.

  • Stage 2: During conditioning:

During this stage, a conditioned stimulus is associated with the unconditioned stimulus. The conditioned stimulus should occur before or during the same time as an unconditioned stimulus to get the desired conditioning.

For example, a perfume might be associated with a specific person.

  • Stage 3: After conditioning:

The conditioned stimulus in association with unconditioned stimulus creates a new conditioned response.

For example, a person who has been associated with sweet-smelling perfume is now found attractive.

What are the benefits of classical conditioning?

Classical conditioning can play a significant role as behavioral therapies in treating the following conditions, which include:

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Medically Reviewed on 5/4/2021
References
Walinga J, Stangor C. 8.1 Learning by Association: Classical Conditioning. In: Introduction to Psychology, 1st ed. BCcampus Open Education. https://opentextbc.ca/introductiontopsychology/chapter/7-1-learning-by-association-classical-conditioning/

McLeod S. Classical Conditioning. Simply Psychology. https://www.simplypsychology.org/classical-conditioning.html