Ivan Pavlov
Ivan Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov discovered classical conditioning in Russia over 100 years ago. He also won the Nobel Prize, the Oscar of science, for his work on the digestive system.

Even though Pavlov was a physiologist, he has a permanent place in psychology because he discovered classical conditioning, a form of learning that brought about Behaviorism — a school of thought that dominated psychology in the early 1900s. Behaviorists believe that people learn behavior through experience.

Classical conditioning is also known as Pavlovian conditioning or respondent conditioning. It’s all the same. Classical conditioning is the popular one, so we’ll stick to that term.

Classical conditioning refers to the linking of a previously neutral, unobtrusive item with another item that elicits a physiological response. Because of the linking, either item can subsequently produce that physiological response.

I think we need an example here. Abstract definitions make my head spin.

Let’s say you’re watching the Oscars. Of course, the expensive gowns and uncomfortable onstage banter captivate you, but suddenly you’re quite thirsty. You rush to the kitchen to quickly grab some milk from the back corner of the fridge, and in no time, you’re back in front of the television to witness Jared Leto walking onto the stage to accept his best-supporting Oscar for Dallas Buyers Club. His long ombre locks captivate you. You’ve never seen a better example of ombre hair on a man or a woman. Suddenly, he’s in front of the microphone and talking about his mother. You swipe away a tear because you’re a sap for a good mother story. With tearless eyes, you refocus on Jared Leto’s face, hair, red bow tie … and now you’re gagging! The milk that you had just downed was sour! Disgustingly sour. You collapse to the floor clutching your ribs as your insides make their way out.

Jared Leto
Jared Leto accepting his Oscar.

A week later, you’re waiting for Jared Leto to come out on stage with his band 30 Seconds to Mars. The man is so talented. Oscar Winner. Lead Vocalist. What can’t he do? The crowd’s volume increases with Leto’s entrance onto the stage. You strain your neck around the too tall man to get a glimpse of Jared Leto. Ahh, there he is and his ombre hair, face, strut … and your insides are churning … and you’re trying with all your might to suppress the bile and vomit threatening to make their way out. What is happening??

Jared Leto Singing
Jared Leto singing.

Classical conditioning, honey.

In our example, you had a bad, bad physiological response to sour milk while watching Jared Leto accept his Oscar. During that event, your brain formed a link between the sour milk and Jared Leto. Now, either Jared Leto or sour milk can elicit the unsettled stomach and vomit response.

Ahh. Classical conditioning.

Now, I’ll introduce some technical mumbo-jumbo. Skip this section if you hate lingo (like me, ironically enough).

Unconditioned stimulus: This is the item that naturally elicits a biological response. In our example, the unconditioned stimulus is the sour milk.

Unconditioned response: This term refers to the automatic and natural response to an unconditioned stimulus.  This would be the vomit resulting from drinking sour milk in our example.

Conditioned stimulus: The conditioned stimulus is the previously neutral item that your brain links with an unconditioned stimulus. Jared Leto (thanks for being a good sport!) is the conditioned stimulus in our example.

Conditioned response:  The conditioned response is the reaction elicited by a previously neutral item: the vomit at the concert.

In our example, conditioning or learning occurred during one experience (during Oscar night!). This is known as one-trial learning. One-trial learning does occur (especially for food poisoning!), but most of the time it takes multiple experiences to form a conditioned response.




Picture Attribution

Ivan Pavlov: Wikimedia Commons

Jared Leto accepting his Oscar: Jared Leto Facebook

Jared Leto singing: Jared Leto Facebook