Classical conditioning process
Terms to know
- Unconditioned stimulus. This is the thing that triggers an automatic response. Food is the
unconditioned stimulus in Pavlov’s dog experiment.
- Unconditioned response. This is what response naturally occurs when you experience the
unconditioned stimulus, such as salivating from the food.
- Conditioned stimulus. This is considered a neutral stimulus. When you’re presented with
it over and over before the unconditioned stimulus (e.g., food), it
will start to evoke the same response. The bell before the food is
the conditioned stimulus.
- Conditioned response. This is the acquired response to the conditioned stimulus (the
bell), which is often the same response as the unconditioned
response. So, the dogs salivated for the bell the same way they
salivated for the food in front of them.
- Extinction. This term is used when you start presenting the conditioned
stimulus (the bell) over and over but without the unconditioned
stimulus (the food). Over time, the dogs would unlearn their
conditioning that the bell means food is coming.
- Generalization. This refers to when you can generalize similar things and respond
the same way. Dogs began salivating at sounds similar to bells
because they were generalizing what they learned.
- Discrimination. The opposite of generalization, this is our ability to tell the
difference when something is similar but not identical, so it won’t
produce the same response. A horn sound, for instance, wouldn’t
make the dogs salivate.
Stages of Pavlovian conditioning
Before conditioning is when the unconditioned stimulus and
unconditioned response come into play. This is the natural response
that wasn’t taught.
For instance, food produces salivating, or a stomach virus produces
At this point, the conditioned stimulus is still called the neutral
stimulus because it currently has no effect.
We begin to associate the neutral stimulus with the unconditioned
For instance, you may associate a specific type of food with a
stomach virus, or the bell ringing before getting food may be
associated with receiving food.
Once you’ve learned to associate the conditioned stimulus with the
unconditioned response, it becomes the conditioned response.
So, the specific type of food now produces nausea (even if it
wasn’t necessarily what caused the stomach virus), and the bell
In this way, you’ve unconsciously learned to associate the new
stimulus (whether situation, object, person, etc.) with the
Try it for yourself
The Office” has a great (and funny!) example of classical
There are many ways you can experiment with conditioning in your
daily life. Here are some tips to consider:
- Create a good environment with nice lighting and clean surfaces for
your home office to make it a more positive working environment. A
good working environment can condition you to get more work done.
- Create a bedtime routine to condition yourself to sleep earlier.
You can do this by dimming lights and avoiding screens 30 minutes
before bed. This can create an atmosphere of sleep.
- Train a pet to do basic obedience behaviors or special tricks by
asking them to do the task and rewarding them in the same way over
and over. You can even use Pavlov’s trick and try a certain bell to
let them know when dinner is coming (and that they should sit and
- Teach good behaviors to children by rewarding them with a small
treat or new toy. If they struggle with sharing, reward them when
they make an effort to share.