Behaviorism is a school of thought in psychology based on the assumption that learning occurs through interactions with the environment. Two other assumptions of this theory are that the environment shapes behavior and that taking internal mental states such as thoughts, feelings and emotions into consideration is useless in explaining behavior.
One of the best-known aspects of behavioral learning theory is classical conditioning. Discovered by Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, classical conditioning is a learning process that occurs through associations between an environmental stimulus and a naturally occurring stimulus.
It's important to note that classical conditioning involves placing a neutral signal before a naturally occurring reflex. In Pavlov's classic experiment with dogs, the neutral signal was the sound of a tone and the naturally occurring reflex was salivating in response to food. By associating the neutral stimulus with the environmental stimulus (the presentation of food), the sound of the tone alone could produce the salivation response.
In order to understand how more about how classical conditioning works, it is important to be familiar with the basic principles of the process.
The Unconditioned Stimulus
The unconditioned stimulus is one that unconditionally, naturally, and automatically triggers a response. For example, when you smell one of your favorite foods, you may immediately feel very hungry. In this example, the smell of the food is the unconditioned stimulus.
The Unconditioned Response
The unconditioned response is the unlearned response that occurs naturally in response to the unconditioned stimulus. In our example, the feeling of hunger in response to the smell of food is the unconditioned response.
The Conditioned Stimulus
The conditioned stimulus is previously neutral stimulus that, after becoming associated with the unconditioned stimulus, eventually comes to trigger a conditioned response. In our earlier example, suppose that when you smelled your favorite food, you also heard the sound of a whistle. While the whistle is unrelated to the smell of the food, if the sound of the whistle was paired multiple times with the smell, the sound would eventually trigger the conditioned response. In this case, the sound of the whistle is the conditioned stimulus.
The Conditioned Response
The conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. In our example, the conditioned response would be feeling hungry when you heard the sound of the whistle.
Classical Conditioning in the Real World
In reality, people do not respond exactly like Pavlov's dogs. There are, however, numerous real-world applications for classical conditioning. For example, many dog trainers use classical conditioning techniques to help people train their pets.
These techniques are also useful in the treatment of phobias or anxiety problems. Teachers are able to apply classical conditioning in the class by creating a positive classroom environment to help students overcome anxiety or fear. Pairing an anxiety-provoking situation, such as performing in front of a group, with pleasant surroundings helps the student learn new associations. Instead of feeling anxious and tense in these situations, the child will learn to stay relaxed and calm.
More About Classical Conditioning
Classical conditioning can be used to increase the amount of a behavior, but it can also be used to decrease behavior. Learn more about classical conditioning phenomena.