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Concepts and Theories of Classical Conditioning

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Psychology
Wordcount: 2419 words Published: 9th Apr 2018

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  • Aimee Duncalfe
  • Rena Borovilos

Classical Conditioning and My Behaviour

Behavioural psychology is a theory of learning that is founded upon the idea that all behaviours are acquired through conditioning, which occurs through environmental interaction (Cherry, What is Behaviorism?, 2014). Conditioning is a specific type of learning that has been explored by several different physiologists and psychologists throughout history, and can be broken down into two specific types of learning; classical conditioning and operant conditioning. This paper will discuss classical conditioning while exploring several different examples, including a personal behaviour that can also be identified as classical conditioning.

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Classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associating two stimuli that are repeatedly paired together, resulting in a conditioned response. (Cherry, What Is Classical Conditioning?, 2005). The process of classical conditioning consist of placing a conditioned stimulus before an unconditioned stimulus that naturally results in an unconditioned response. When paired repeatedly, the conditioned stimulus eventually causes a conditioned response, even in the absence of the unconditioned stimulus.

An unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is one that naturally or automatically causes a response (Cherry, Classical Conditioning, 2005). For example, when you hear a balloon pop, you may immediately jump in shock. The sound of the balloon popping is the unconditioned stimulus.

An unconditioned response (UCR) is the automatic response that occurs naturally in response to the unconditioned stimulus (Cherry, Classical Conditioning, 2005). Using the same example, jumping in response to the sound of the balloon popping is the unconditioned response.

The conditioned stimulus (CS) is previously neutral stimulus that, after becoming associated with the unconditioned stimulus, eventually causes a conditioned response (Cherry, Classical Conditioning, 2005). Suppose that immediately before you heard the balloon pop, you saw a flashing red light. The flashing red light is unrelated to the sound of the balloon popping, though if the flashing red light was paired multiple times with the balloon popping, seeing the flashing red light would eventually cause the conditioned response. In this case, the conditioned stimulus is seeing the flashing red light.

The conditioned response (CR) is the learned response to a previously neutral stimulus (Cherry, Classical Conditioning, 2005). In the same example, the conditioned response would be jumping to the sight of the flashing red light.

This process, often used in behavioural training, was introduced by a Russian physiologist by the name of Ivan Pavlov, who won the Nobel Prize in 1904 for his work on the physiology of digestion (Nobel Media AB, 2014). Pavlov’s experiment explored dogs salivating in response to the presentation of food. In his experiment, the UCS was the presentation of food, and the UCR was salivating in response to the food. Pavlov also introduced a CS, the sound of a bell, immediately before presenting the food to the dogs. By combining the sound of the bell with the presentation of food, the sound of the bell alone would eventually produce the conditioned response of salivation. (Cherry, What Is Classical Conditioning?, 2005).

There are several occurrences that take place in relation to classical conditioning. The first stages of learning when a response is established is what is known as acquisition. This refers to the period of time when the conditioned response is first established and gradually strengthened (Cherry, Principles of Classical Conditioning, 2005). Going back to the first example of the popping balloon, the conditioned response has been acquired once a person begins to jump at the sight of the flashing red light. In Pavlov’s experiment, the conditioned response has been acquired as soon as the dog begins to salivate in response to the sound of the bell. Once the response has been acquired, the response can be progressively strengthened to ensure the behaviour is well learned. Factors that can influence how quickly acquisition occurs include how noticeable the CS is, as well as the timing of the CS in relation to the UCS. If the CS is too subtle, or if there is too much of a delay between the CS and the UCS, the learner may not notice the CS enough to form an association between the two. The most effective method is to introduce the CS and then quickly present the UCS so that there is an overlap between the two. The more noticeable the CS, and the shorter delay between the UCS and the CS, the quicker acquisition will take (Cherry, What is Acquisition?, 2005).

Another occurrence in relation to classical conditioning is extinction. Extinction happens when the frequency of a CR decreases or disappears when a CS is no longer paired with an UCS (Cherry, Principles of Classical Conditioning, 2005). Returning to the previously used example, if the popping of the balloon were no longer paired with the flashing red light, eventually the conditioned response of jumping to the flashing red light would disappear. In Pavlov’s experiment, if he no longer paired the bell with the presentation of the food, eventually the conditioned response of salivating to the sound of the bell would disappear.

During his research, Pavlov discovered that when extinction occurs, it does not mean that the subject returns to their unconditioned state. Allowing several hours or even days to elapse after a response has been extinguished can result in spontaneous recovery of the CR (Cherry, What is Extinction?, 2005). Spontaneous recovery refers to the sudden reappearance of the CR after extinction or period of reduced response. If the CS and UCS are no longer associated, extinction will occur very quickly after a spontaneous recovery. Pavlov noted during his experiment that no longer pairing the sound of the bell with the presentation of food led to extinction of the salivation response. However, after a two hour rest period, the salivation response suddenly reappeared when the bell was presented (Cherry, Spontaneous Recovery, 2005). This phenomena shows that extinction is not the same as unlearning. While the CR may disappear, it may not have been forgotten or completely eliminated.

Stimulus generalization, the tendency for the CS to prompt similar responses after the CR has been conditioned, is another occurrence of classical conditioning (Cherry, What Is Stimulus Generalization?, 2005). In the first example, our subject has been conditioned to jump at the sight of our CR, a flashing red light. After the subject has been conditioned, he might respond to not only a flashing red light, but all flashing lights. This response to all flashing lights exemplifies stimulus generalization.

Closely related to stimulus generalization, stimulus discrimination is the ability to distinguish between a CS and other stimuli that have not been paired with a UCS (Cherry, Principles of Classical Conditioning, 2005). In Pavlov’s experiment where the sound of a bell is the CS, discrimination involves being able to tell the difference between the sound of the bell and other similar sounds, and would then only express the CR at the sound of the bell.

Another form of classical conditioning is higher order conditioning. This is where a new CS is created, by pairing a second CS with a previously created CS. The second CS acts as a UCS for the first CS. If Pavlov had begun flashing a red light before he sounded the bell, the flashing red light would become the new CS, and would eventually evoke the same CR as the sound of the bell does.

My own behaviour indicates that I have also been classically conditioned. Two years ago, I was involved in a car accident. I was driving on the highway in the fast lane, the lane closest to the centre guardrail, when I lost control of my car and slammed into the guardrail, spinning across all three lanes. My car came to a final rest after hitting the guardrail closest to the on and off ramps. Before my car accident, I was a very confident driver and never experienced anxiety while driving, in general or while driving in the fast lane. Since my car accident, I am unable to drive in the fast lane without becoming very anxious.

Experiencing anxiety is generally a natural response when getting into a car accident, so getting into a car accident in this example is the UCS, and experiencing anxiety is the UCR. Immediately preceding the car accident, I was driving in the fast lane, which is the CS in this situation. As a result of my traumatic experience, driving in the fast lane now produces the same anxious feeling as getting into a car accident because I have associated this factor with my car accident. And so, anxiety is the CR in this example. I have included a diagram in Appendix 1 to demonstrate my behaviour and how it associates with the basic classical conditioning model.

A CR was achieved very quickly during acquisition of my behaviour. Because the situation was so traumatic, the CR was immediate, and I began to experience anxiety as quickly as the next time I drove on the highway. My behaviour is a good example of generalization because I do not only become anxious while driving in the fast lane on the same highway or in the same area where I hit the guardrail, but also while driving in the fast lane on all highways.

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There is another possible explanation for my behaviour. By avoiding driving in the fast lane, I am decreasing the likelihood of experiencing anxiety. My personal behaviour is a great example of negative punishment, which involves removing something good or desirable away in order to reduce the probability of a specific behaviour reoccurring. While driving in the fast lane can be beneficial and often desired, by not driving in that lane, I am eliminating the CR of experiencing anxiety when driving in that lane.

Be it salivating at the smell of our favourite food cooking, avoiding a specific restaurant because of a bad experience, or putting on our seatbelt to stop the car from making the obnoxious dinging sound, our everyday lives are filled with behaviours that are a result of classical or operant conditioning, whether we realize it or not. Some of these conditioning experiences may be positive ones, others may have more negative effects on our lives, and some may go unnoticed forever. While conditioning is not as prominent today as it was throughout the middle of the twentieth century, it still remains an influential force in psychology.


Cherry, K. (2005). Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/classcond.htm

Cherry, K. (2005). Principles of Classical Conditioning. Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/a/classcondbasics.htm

Cherry, K. (2005). Spontaneous Recovery. Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/sindex/g/spontrec.htm

Cherry, K. (2005). What is Acquisition? Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/glossaryfromatoz/g/Acquisition.htm

Cherry, K. (2005). What Is Classical Conditioning? Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/cindex/g/classcond.htm

Cherry, K. (2005). What is Extinction? Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/eindex/g/extinction.htm

Cherry, K. (2005). What Is Stimulus Generalization? Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/sindex/g/stimgen.htm

Cherry, K. (2014). What is Behaviorism? Retrieved from about|education: http://psychology.about.com/od/behavioralpsychology/f/behaviorism.htm

Nobel Media AB. (2014). The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine 1904. Retrieved from Nobelprize.org: http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/medicine/laureates/1904/

Weiten, W., & McCann, D. (2015). Custom Pub: Psych 1000 Introduction to Psychology and Study Guide. Toronto, ON: Nelson Education Ltd.

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