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Classical Conditioning & It’s Effects

Conditioning is a form of learning in which certain stimulus becomes increasingly effective in generating a response. When we anticipate about learning we mainly think of some students in a class. With their books opened on their tables listening very patiently to their pedagogue. But in terms of psychology, learning has a little different aspect. According to psychologists learning is a long-term change in behavior that is based on experience. One of the theories which is called as the landmark theory in the field of psychology in the field of organizational behavior specially in the field of learning is called as classical conditioning.

In the 1890’s, a Russian physiologist named Ivan Pavlov (1849 – 1936) did some really famous experiments on dogs. For his contributions in the field of behavior Ivan Pavlov was awarded Nobel prize in 1904.

Experiment of Ivan Pavlov

Experimental setup:

There was a proper experimental setup done to learn the behaviour of dog after it sees the food. A food container and a tube for collection of the saliva of the dog. There was an alarming bell that rang and then the food was offered to the dog. A glass screen was there to observe the behaviour of the dog after its eye catches the sight of food. 

Idea behind the experiment:

The main agenda to carry out this observation was that no body trains a dog to salivate after it sees the food. It’s a natural process of salvation after sighting the food. Ivan kept a dog in his laboratory and he offered him meat at different time intervals. Whenever dog saw the meat, it started to salivate immediately as a response. Later on, he started to offer the meat to the dog with the ring of the bell.

The do started to salivate on the ring of the bell. He kept on repeating the experiment till the dog got trained in the process. Then he excluded the food and only rang the bell. He observed that the dog started to salivate with the ring of bell. This response of dog was denoted as classical conditioning.

Stimulus and responses:

Anything that results in the generation of a response is stimuli. Hence classical conditioning is a way of learning where a stimulus that triggers a biological response is paired with new stimulus that then results in the same previous reaction. There are following types of stimulus and responses involved

Unconditioned stimulus:

The unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is the object or event that usually produces the unconditioned or natural response without any association with the previous conditioning. These stimulus re responsible for natural reaction or natural reflux.

For example, if someone throws a ball at you, automatically you will try to save yourself from the ball. In other words, you are reflexing to a stimulus that is a ball thrown on your body in order to save yourself. 

In the case of Ivan Pavlov’s experiment food is the stimulus and salvation are the response produced by the dog. So, we can say that unconditioned stimulus (UCS) produces natural response.

Unconditioned response:

An unconditioned response (UCR) is an unlearned reaction or natural reaction to an unconditioned stimulus (UCS). It occurs without previous conditioning.

For example, in the experiment of Ivan Pavlov the salvation of dog after it sees the food in the try is an unconditioned response (UCR) to an unconditioned stimulus (UCS).

Neutral stimulus:

Neutral stimulus (NS) is a stimulus that takes place before the conditioning. The NS does not naturally bring about the response of interest. It initially produces no specific response other than focusing attention. Neutral stimulus will elicit a conditioned response.

Conditioned stimulus:

The conditioned stimulus (CS) is similar to the neutral stimulus that has n response till it gets associated with the unconditioned stimulus through repeated pairings, and then it eventually gathers to initiate a conditioned response.

For example, if we see kids who get really happy when they hear the recess bell ringing as they know now it’s the time for them to play with their friends. Their happiness is associated with the ring of bell for the recess. Ringing of bell is unconditioned stimulus but its is paired with their happiness of playing with their friends which is a conditioned response.

In the case of Ivan Pavlov’s experiment if he rang the bell only the dog would not salivate. But after repeated attempts of offering the food to dog after the ringing of bell the dog will start to salivate even if no food is offered and only the bell has rung. In other words, bell is the conditioned stimulus and food is the unconditioned stimulus. When you combine both a conditioned response will occur that is the dog will start to salivate.

Conditioned response:

A conditioned response (CR) is opposite to that of unconditioned response (UCR). It is learned reaction to a conditioned stimulus (CS). A response we get after we train something with a neutral or conditioned response. It occurs because of the previous repeated pairings with an unconditioned stimulus.

For example, in the experiment of Ivan Pavlov when bell rang and food try was presented to the dog it started to salivate which was a conditioned response. After some repeated attempts with bell and food combined when only the bell was rung the dog started to salivate which was a CR. As at that time the dog thought that the food is about to be served.

Stages of Ivan Pavlov’s Experiment:

Source: biographics

Ivan Pavlov’s experiment was conducted in three stages, namely before condition, during conditioning and after conditioning.

Before conditioning:

It is the first stage of Ivan Pavlov’s experiment. In this stage they gave food to the dog which is an unconditioned stimulus (UCS). The moment the dog saw the food it started to salivate. Which is an unconditioned response (UCR) a naturally occurring response. On the other hand, when the scientist rings the bell and observes the dog, he notices that the dog doesn’t show any response. Here bell is the neutral stimulus that is why it shows no response. From this he predicted that salvation is a naturally occurring response. Shown by the dog upon the sight of the food.

During conditioning: 

It is the second stage of Ivan Pavlov’s experiment. In this stage we combined bell with food to see the reaction of dog. They rung the bell and then provided food to the dog. Here bell and food were acting as unconditional stimulus (UCS). As after looking at food, it is obvious that dog will start to salivate. Salivating dog is an unconditioned response (UCR). We can conclude that dog’s salvation is under training process. So that it can be associated with the ring of bell.

After conditioning:

It is the third stage of Ivan Pavlov’s experiment. The scientist only rang the bell. He didn’t offer any food but he noticed that the dog started to salivate. Bell was a neutral stimulus (NS) but after the repeated experimentation bell now has become conditioned stimulus (CS). As he associated ringing of bell with food. Salivation is a conditioned response (CR). Here the dog thought the bell rings each time they give it food. It will get the food so that is why it starts to salivate as it was hungry.

Major finding of Ivan Pavlov’s theory:

As they conducted this experiment on dogs, he said that the dogs are showing conditioning. Even if you provide the dog with food or not upon ringing of the bell it will start to salivate. And it is a clear indication that the dog has adapted classical conditioning. He summed up his observations by concluding that there is a neutral stimulus. Like bell which produces no response itself on the salvation of the dog. However, there is a non-neutral or unconditioned stimulus. Which is the food which will produce an unconditioned response that is salvation in the dog. As they combine food and bell, he concluded that repetition of things will eventually start learning.

Limitations of Ivan Pavlov’s theory:

None of the theories provided are beyond limitations. Its is obvious that Ivan Pavlov’s theory also had its limitations. To be very certain if there is time lapse between the ringing of bell and provision of food then there will not be any learning. As the provision of food immediately after the ringing of bell is necessary. So there should be minimum time lapse in provision of food to the dog. 

Another limitation is if you keep on ringing the bell and don’t provide dog with the food. Then salivation will stop – an extinction. Extinction is when the conditioned response (CR) stops. This is because the conditioned stimulus (CS) has no unconditioned stimulus (UCS). As the dog will unlearn to salivate after the ring of several bells without the provision of food. The dog will then learn a new behaviour. No food after ringing of bell.

Another important limitation is that if dog will be able to identify the right bell which is very necessary.

As if it’s unable to identify the right bell he will start o salivate on every bell which is wrong response. Discrimination of bell is necessary. Pavlov denied this limitation as he said that the dog understands the sound of the bell. It doesn’t respond on every bell so it will salivate only on the specified bell. After extinction if you suddenly ring the bell then there are maximum chances of recovery that the dog will start to salivate.  This is spontaneous recovery. Spontaneous recovery is when the conditioned stimulus (CS) produces the conditioned response (CR) after the behaviour has been extinct.

J.B. Watson and Little Albert:

Source: Johncheezy

A scientist by the name J.B. Watson was experimenting and learning the phenomena of conditioning. He was a very famous psychologist and the founder of school of behaviorism. He did an experiment on little Albert to understand the aspects of conditioning. According to that experiment if some conditions are repeating again and again i.e., the stimulus keeps of repeating. The mind of the certain individual is trained for the specific response.

Little Albert’s experiment:

Idea behind the experiment. Watson performed an experiment on Little Albert to see if learning is possible through conditioning or not. And if something is stuck in the head, does it actually cause learning. He wanted to learn if such phenomenon happens then how it happens and what causes it.

He conditioned a human baby to experience fear when it saw a white furry rat. And as a result he generalized the stimulus, at the sight of other tiny furry animals. Watson took Little Albert to play with the furry rat. The kid was very happy and he was playing with the white furry rat. But the moment he tried touching the rat it produced a very loud noise by the hitting of hammer. It scared the child. Watson kept on repeating and initiating this stimulus by taking little albert to the white furry rat. The child thought that such noises come when he goes near or tries to touch the furry rat and he started to cry. As albert began to associate small animals with the trauma of noise.

Little Albert’s conditioned at a point of time that the moment he goes near the furry rat he hears such noises and his fear exceeds. And it was not just white furry rat. He got scared around anything white that had furs.

Stages of Little Albert’s experiment:

Little Albert’s experiment has three stages. Namely before condition, during conditioning and after conditioning.

  1. Before condition: In the first stage on Little Albert’s experiment, he had no fear playing with the white furry rat. As white furry rat was a neutral stimulus (NS) that he associated with happiness. The moment it omitted the loud painful noise an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) originated. Which resulted in a natural reflux of the child crying with fear. Which was an unconditioned response (UCR)
  1. During Conditioning: In the second stage on Little Albert’s experiment Watson made albert to go near the white furry rat. When albert tried to touch the white furry rat it produced a loud painful noise. Which scared the child and he started to cry out of fear. In this he combined neutral stimulus (NS) with unconditioned stimulus (UCS). Crying was a natural reflux of the child.

After conditioning:

In the third stage on Little Albert’s experiment, they brought child near the white furry rat. The moment the child saw the white furry rat he started to scream and would never go near it. Here the white furry rat became the conditioned stimulus (CS) and the Little Albert crying was the conditioned reflux or response (CR).

Little Albert got so fearful of the white furry rat that he never went closer to anything had furs or looked like white furry rat. Learning is totally an objective branch of science. It is a conditioning i.e., learning through association. Stimulus results in response.

Principles of classical conditioning:

Classical conditioning comes with the development of various sorts of phobias. The behaviorists have been searching on discriminative responses of living beings from long ago. The five principles are acquisition, extinction, spontaneous recovery, stimulus generalization and discrimination. The principles below attain a much wider understanding of them.


It is the initial stage of learning when the response is first established and gradually strengthened. Which occurs due to the repeated results of presentation or experiments. A neutral stimulus (NS) is repeatedly paired with the unconditioned stimulus (UCS). An unconditioned stimulus (UCS) generates the response naturally it doesn’t need any sort of learning. When an association between an unconditioned stimulus (UCS) and neutral stimulus (NS) occurs, there is a generation of conditioned stimulus (CS).

In this a particular response is associated with particular stimulus and that is the point where we can say that the organism has acquired the response.

Scientists taught a pet parrot how to talk when someone enters home by repeating each time when someone enters. Slowly and gradually, it will learn and will say the exact same words when someone enters home or door bell rings as they act as a conditioned stimulus (CS) and the parrot speaking is a conditioned response (CR). 


Extinction happens when the conditioned stimulus (CS) without pairing it with the unconditional stimulus (UCS) occurs. Extinction is the decrease or disappearance of the conditioned response (CR).

For example, If we knock instead of ringing the bell, the parrot will not speak when it sees someone entering the door. And it will forget talking if this keeps on happening in the span of 4 to 6 months. It will lose conditioned learning. And you will have to teach it again.

Spontaneous recovery:

Spontaneous recovery is the principle of conditioning in which reappearance of conditioned response (CR) after a period of lessened response. The response to a conditioned stimulus (CS) remerges after a period of long break as spontaneous recovery. If the conditioned stimulus (CS) and unconditioned stimulus (UCS) are no longer in association for a long time after recovery. The conditioned response (CR) will extinct at a much faster rate.

For example, the door bell starts to ring again and someone enters the door. If the parrot has to repeat the words each time the bell rings it will again require the response. It will start to speak again. 

Stimulus generalization:

It is an act of responding to the stimulus similar but distinct from the conditioned stimulus (CS). It is basically a tendency for the conditioned stimulus (CS) to generate similar responses after the conditioned response (CR) called as the stimulus generalization.

For example, if you play the sound of the door bell on a tape recorder or mobile phone. The parrot will start to talk as it would think that the sound is coming from the door bell. This is the stimulus generalization as it was a response to a stimulus which is similar to the conditioned stimulus.

Another example of stimulus generalization is of traffic signals. We stop our car when the light turns red despite of noticing the shape or size of the light we just stop. As it denotes that the car needs to stop. Although the effect is not as accurate as the real one but w know that we have to stop. Greater the similarity greater the effect will be on the mind of individual.


Discrimination is one of the main principles. Which is the basic ability to differentiate between conditioned stimulus (CS) and another stimulus. The latter has no unconditioned stimulus (UCS). In short, the differentiation between the two stimuli is a discrimination. The principle of discrimination is also one of the limiting factor when it comes to Ivan Pavlov’s experiment. In his experiment it was necessary for the dog to differentiate between the sound of different bells. As on the specified bell for food, if the dog started to salivate on every sound of bell, then the experiment is vague.

For example, the parrot will not talk on the knock of door or any sound coming from the radio or phone. As bell is the conditioned stimulus (CS) and parrot should be able to differentiate the different sounds. Another example can be that you should be able to distinguish the bark of your dog or your neighbor’s dog.

Classical conditioning examples from daily life:

Classical conditioning can happen outside of the confined boundaries of a laboratory. One can also be conditioned in a natural environment setting by naturally occurring events. Phobias are also associated with the process.


To quote an example from daily life is a person who has a cavity in his tooth. He needs to visit the dentist but after hearing the traumatic and painful experiences from his friends and colleagues. He is scared to visit the dentist. This clearly shows that he has a phobia of visiting the dentist after his past experience and after listening to the stories of his friends and colleagues. He visits the dentist but leaves as he hears the him saying that you will receive a numbing injection. As his traumatic experience is related to injection. This is a conditioned response (CR) to a conditioned stimulus (CS). This is clearly conditioned learning phobia.

Snow Storms

snow field and green pine trees during daytime
Photo by Courtney Chestnut

To quote a daily life example is from Kansas ice or snow storms are quite often during winters. In one Kansas’ small town when the strong winds blow during the storm the tea branches got deposits of ice from the storm. In turn they get heavy and end up coming crashing down on locals’ heads. It was habitual of the locals to shield their heads or duck as a reflex every time they thought a branch had broken.

Fortunately, a branch would not just come crashing down if people heard a crackling sound which alarmed the passersby to shield their head. A native of Kansas once elaborated an incident where he said that he was acclimatized by the crackling sound of the branches to the extent that he after some initial conscious instances of covering his head after the said sound, he ended up mindlessly just guarding his head to the crackling sound.

In this way he was conditioned to respond to the neutral stimulus of crackling. This is a pretty useful reflex as you get some more seconds to shield yourself and protect yourself from some injury.


To quote an example form the commercial world it is often and quite relentlessly used in programmatic advertising. Often people are conditioned by advertisements, company logos, taglines specific to a certain brand and people end up responding in a particular reflex to a desirable stimulus. Normally when a new product is launched it is eminently associated with the Company’s logo so that people feel the same sense of comfort as they did with the previous products of the same companies.

If we take an example of a fitness company advertising for a new drink that promises weight loss and a lean fit model body.

Now in the advertisement they’ll advertise the drink with fit and healthy models holding the drinks, enjoying the sip, carrying it to the gym and owing the drink all the credit to their heavenly bodies. So, a person looking at the advertisements would be inclined to believe that if they buy the drink and consume it he will end up having the same body as those models.

Also looking those models, one will unconsciously compare himself or herself with the models and feel a little inadequate. So, every time you see the logo next to the drink you maybe subconsciously inclined to remember your inadequate self in front of those models and remembering that the drink promises to do wonders for your body. In this way your chances of buying that drink increases and the company bags itself a customer through its advertisements.


Another example from our daily life is while sitting in a group of people a sudden instinct reflex you have to reach out to your phone to check if it is ringing. And when you see its not your phone that is ringing. It is someone else’s phone. You and the other person have the same chime that’s why you felt it is your phone ringing. We reach out to our phone. This is the unconditional response (UCR) our body shows to a conditional stimulus (CS).


You are hungry and you go to a restaurant. While sitting in a restaurant and waiting for your food to come. You see other people eating and enjoying their food. Your hunger levels increase and you’ve a strong desire to eat. This is called as conditional response (CR) to the aroma you are sensing which is a conditional stimulus (CS).


Another example from daily life is very useful for people who are dealing with the problems related to phobias and anxiety which are conditioned responses (CR). School teachers use certain techniques to reduce student’s anxiety or phobias. They associate an anxiety-provoking situation with a pleasant environment and help students learn new associations and new behaviors.

This helps students stay calm and stress-free in their surroundings instead of feeling anxious which is their new learned response to a conditioned stimulus (CS). For example, if a student with stage fright is encouraged to perform on stage repeatedly with a positive conditioned response (CR), after a while the student’s stage fright will disappear automatically.

Childhood Experience

Another example is from our childhood which states that when in school the immunization team came, we all started to hide and cry. As our unconditioned response (UCR) was our friend who got his jab done and he started to cry. Which was an unconditioned response (UCR).

We got a phobia after he started to cry that it hurts when you get jabbed. And when it was our turn we were already traumatized which was a conditioned response (CR). Another thing some kids start to do is they associate their phobia with the white coat of doctor a conditioned stimulus (CS) and they start to cry which is conditioned response (CR). It is because brain has an ability to learn through.

Bad Experience

Another example is of a person who is been bitten by the dog at certain location for instance near his office. Whenever that person will pass from that place and he hears a dog barking which is conditioned stimuli (CS) he will get alert which is a conditioned response (CR). That man bitten by dog is unconditioned stimuli (UCS) which is a frightening experience and unconditioned response (UCR).


Classical conditioning concludes how different behaviors and responses can be learned through the association of two different stimuli; one neutral stimulus and one unconditional stimulus. Applying it in our daily lives we can put it to best possible use by learning to adapt to changing circumstances, new surroundings and responding to unprecedented events.

Having a clear understanding of how the Pavlov’s theory works we can better understand our behavioral adaptations and why we respond in a particular way. Using this knowledge, we can help some people around us suffering from addiction, drug dependance, anger management because now we know how the mechanism works. For example, if a person is a drug abuser, then over time his body compensates to counterbalance the effects of the particular drug. 

So now if his doctors can work out a treatment to reverse the way his body responds to the drug or use some active healthy means to give off the same effect they might help people who abuse some substances back-off from extreme addiction that he has fallen prey to and little by little he might eventually be clean. Thus, we can use the process to our benefit through its constructive application in our daily life.

From animals to infants, they all learn their behaviors and respond accordingly to the stimulus.  However, in work place it seems to be restricted as the work environment is not a place a to experiment through inhibition or activation of a stimulus as most of the work is learned through experience or is done by the book. 

It allows one to explore the nature of associative learning.

Photo by Annie Spratt

As an adaptive mechanism it also somehow helps shield and individual from harms or an unpleasant outcome from an unforeseen circumstance or prepares them for important biological cycles or events such as sexual activity. Various behavioral therapeutic treatments including aversion therapy and systematic desensitization work on the basic principles of the process. In both these treatments both the psychotherapy is designed in a way to cause an individual to reduce a particular pattern of behavior by conditioning the behavior with an unpleasant stimulus.

Weighing the pros and cons the pros definitely outweigh.

But this in no way means that we should completely forsake the negative behaviors and responses that one can learn. Such as responding aggressively in an argument when children see their elders doing so and getting their way with things, they may also resort to doing this. Same way works the cycle of drug abusers and chain smokers.

When they see their friends smoking and drinking their worries away and getting an instant relief, they very likely fall prey to it, as they do not know when and how to stop. We should use classical conditioning for its positive impacts and greater learning experience but at the same time keep an eye out for the negative stimuli and triggers that may have worse impacts and end up becoming a nuisance. 


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