What is classical conditioning? Ivan Pavlov

What is classical conditioning?

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 neutral item with another item that elicits a bodily response. Because of the linking, either item can subsequently produce that physiological response.

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 corner of the fridge, and in no time, you’re back in front of the television to witness the acceptance speech for the best actor. He’s thanking his mother. You wipe away a tear because you’re a sap for a good mother story … and you’re gagging and spitting out the soured milk. You run bent over to vomit in the washroom.

A week later, you’re in line at the movie theater and out of the corner of your eye you notice our Oscar winner on a poster … and you’re trying with all your might to suppress the bile and vomit. What is happening??

Classical conditioning.

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

Now, I’ll introduce some technical mumbo-jumbo. Skip this section if you hate lingo.

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.

Conditioned stimulus: The conditioned stimulus is the previously neutral item that your brain links with an unconditioned stimulus. The Oscar winner is the conditioned stimulus in our example.

Conditioned response:  This is the reaction elicited by a previously neutral item: the vomit at the movie theater.

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