Classical Conditioning

Basic Principles of Classical Conditioning: Pavlov

Ivan Pavlov’s research on classical conditioning profoundly informed the psychology of learning and the field of behaviorism.

Learning Objectives

Summarize the process of classical conditioning

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Ivan Pavlov is known for his famous experiment with conditioning the salivation response in dogs, which brought about classical conditioning.
  • Classical conditioning is a form of learning whereby a conditioned stimulus becomes associated with an unrelated unconditioned stimulus, in order to produce a behavioral response known as a conditioned response.
  • By teaching dogs to associate the sound of a buzzer with being fed, Pavlov established the principles of classical conditioning.
  • Various behavior therapies for managing fear and anxiety, such as desensitization and flooding, have been developed from Pavlov’s work.

Key Terms

  • behaviorism: An approach to psychology focusing on behavior, denying any independent significance for the mind and assuming that behavior is determined by the environment.
  • Hans Eysench: (1916–1997) A German psychologist who is best known for his work on intelligence and personality.
  • behavior therapy: An approach to psychotherapy that focuses on a set of methods designed to reinforce desired behaviors and eliminate undesired behaviors, without concerning itself with the psychoanalytic state of the subject.
  • condition: To shape the behavior of an individual or animal.

Ivan Pavlov (1849–1936) was a Russian scientist whose work with dogs has been influential in understanding how learning occurs. Through his research, he established the theory of classical conditioning.


Ivan Pavlov: Pavlov is known for his studies in classical conditioning, which have been influential in understanding learning.

Basic Principles of Classical Conditioning

Classical conditioning is a form of learning whereby a conditioned stimulus (CS) becomes associated with an unrelated unconditioned stimulus (US) in order to produce a behavioral response known as a conditioned response (CR). The conditioned response is the learned response to the previously neutral stimulus. The unconditioned stimulus is usually a biologically significant stimulus such as food or pain that elicits an unconditioned response (UR) from the start. The conditioned stimulus is usually neutral and produces no particular response at first, but after conditioning it elicits the conditioned response.

Extinction is the decrease in the conditioned response when the unconditioned stimulus is no longer presented with the conditioned stimulus. When presented with the conditioned stimulus alone, the individual would show a weaker and weaker response, and finally no response. In classical-conditioning terms, there is a gradual weakening and disappearance of the conditioned response. Related to this, spontaneous recovery refers to the return of a previously extinguished conditioned response following a rest period. Research has found that with repeated extinction/recovery cycles, the conditioned response tends to be less intense with each period of recovery.

Pavlov’s Famous Study

The best-known of Pavlov’s experiments involves the study of the salivation of dogs. Pavlov was originally studying the saliva of dogs as it related to digestion, but as he conducted his research, he noticed that the dogs would begin to salivate every time he entered the room—even if he had no food. The dogs were associating his entrance into the room with being fed. This led Pavlov to design a series of experiments in which he used various sound objects, such as a buzzer, to condition the salivation response in dogs.

He started by sounding a buzzer each time food was given to the dogs and found that the dogs would start salivating immediately after hearing the buzzer—even before seeing the food. After a period of time, Pavlov began sounding the buzzer without giving any food at all and found that the dogs continued to salivate at the sound of the buzzer even in the absence of food. They had learned to associate the sound of the buzzer with being fed.

If we look at Pavlov’s experiment, we can identify the four factors of classical conditioning at work:

  • The unconditioned response was the dogs’ natural salivation in response to seeing or smelling their food.
  • The unconditioned stimulus was the sight or smell of the food itself.
  • The conditioned stimulus was the ringing of the bell, which previously had no association with food.
  • The conditioned response, therefore, was the salivation of the dogs in response to the ringing of the bell, even when no food was present.

Pavlov had successfully associated an unconditioned response (natural salivation in response to food) with a conditioned stimulus (a buzzer), eventually creating a conditioned response (salivation in response to a buzzer). With these results, Pavlov established his theory of classical conditioning.


Classical conditioning: Before conditioning, an unconditioned stimulus (food) produces an unconditioned response (salivation), and a neutral stimulus (bell) does not have an effect. During conditioning, the unconditioned stimulus (food) is presented repeatedly just after the presentation of the neutral stimulus (bell). After conditioning, the neutral stimulus alone produces a conditioned response (salivation), thus becoming a conditioned stimulus.

Neurological Response to Conditioning

Consider how the conditioned response occurs in the brain. When a dog sees food, the visual and olfactory stimuli send information to the brain through their respective neural pathways, ultimately activating the salivation glands to secrete saliva. This reaction is a natural biological process as saliva aids in the digestion of food. When a dog hears a buzzer and at the same time sees food, the auditory stimulus activates the associated neural pathways. However, because these pathways are being activated at the same time as the other neural pathways, there are weak synapse reactions that occur between the auditory stimulus and the behavioral response. Over time, these synapses are strengthened so that it only takes the sound of a buzzer (or a bell) to activate the pathway leading to salivation.

Behaviorism and Other Research

Pavlov’s research contributed to other studies and theories in behaviorism, which is an approach to psychology interested in observable behaviors rather than the inner workings of the mind. The philosopher Bertrand Russell argued that Pavlov’s work was an important contribution to a philosophy of mind. Pavlov’s research also contributed to Hans Eysench’s personality theory of introversion and extroversion. Eysench built upon Pavlov’s research on dogs, hypothesizing that the differences in arousal that the dogs displayed was due to inborn genetic differences. Eysench then extended the research to human personality traits.

Pavlov’s research further led to the development of important behavior-therapy techniques, such as flooding and desensitizing, for individuals who struggle with fear and anxiety. Desensitizing is a kind of reverse conditioning in which an individual is repeatedly exposed to the thing that is causing the anxiety. Flooding is similar in that it exposes an individual to the thing causing the anxiety, but it does so in a more intense and prolonged way.

Applications of Classical Conditioning to Human Behavior

Research has demonstrated the effectiveness of classical conditioning in altering human behavior.

Learning Objectives

Apply the theories of classical conditioning to daily life

Key Takeaways

Key Points

  • Classical conditioning was initially discovered to be an effective method of learning in dogs. Since that time, numerous research studies have found classical conditioning to be effective in humans as well.
  • John B. Watson conditioned a fear response in “Little Albert” by banging a hammer on a metal pole every time Albert touched a white rat. Albert soon developed a conditioned fear response to rats as well as other similar furry objects.
  • As an adaptive mechanism, conditioning helps shield an individual from harm or prepare them for important biological events, such as sexual activity.
  • Classical conditioning is effective in a number of therapeutic treatments in humans, such as aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, and flooding.
  • Classical conditioning is used not only in therapeutic interventions, but in everyday life as well, such as by advertising agencies.

Key Terms

  • John B. Watson: (1878–1958) An American psychologist who established the psychological school of behaviorism, and is known for his controversial “Little Albert” experiment.
  • conditioning: The process of modifying behavior.

Since Ivan Pavlov’s original experiments, many studies have examined the application of classical conditioning to human behavior.

Watson’s “Little Albert” Experiment

In the early 1900s, John B. Watson carried out a controversial classical conditioning experiment on an infant boy called “Little Albert.” Watson was interested in examining the effects of conditioning on the fear response in humans, and he introduced Little Albert to a number of items such as a white rat, a bunny, and a dog. Albert was originally not fearful of any of the items. Watson then allowed Albert to play with the rat, but as Albert played, Watson suddenly banged a hammer on a metal bar. The sound startled Albert and caused him to cry. Each time Albert touched the rat, Watson again banged the hammer on the bar. Watson was able to successfully condition Albert to fear the rat because of its association with the loud noise. Eventually, Albert was conditioned to fear other similar furry items such as a rabbit and even a Santa Claus mask. While Watson’s research provided new insight into conditioning, it would be considered unethical by the current ethical standards set forth by the American Psychological Association.


The Little Albert experiment: Through stimulus generalization, Little Albert came to fear furry things, including Watson in a Santa Claus mask.

Classical Conditioning in Humans

The influence of classical conditioning can be seen in responses such as phobias, disgust, nausea, anger, and sexual arousal. A familiar example is conditioned nausea, in which the sight or smell of a particular food causes nausea because it caused stomach upset in the past. Similarly, when the sight of a dog has been associated with a memory of being bitten, the result may be a conditioned fear of dogs.

As an adaptive mechanism, conditioning helps shield an individual from harm or prepare them for important biological events, such as sexual activity. Thus, a stimulus that has occurred before sexual interaction comes to cause sexual arousal, which prepares the individual for sexual contact. For example, sexual arousal has been conditioned in human subjects by pairing a stimulus like a picture of a jar of pennies with views of an erotic film clip. Similar experiments involving blue gourami fish and domesticated quail have shown that such conditioning can increase the number of offspring. These results suggest that conditioning techniques might help to increase fertility rates in infertile individuals and endangered species.

Behavioral Therapies

Classical conditioning has been used as a successful form of treatment in changing or modifying behaviors, such as substance abuse and smoking. Some therapies associated with classical conditioning include aversion therapy, systematic desensitization, and flooding. Aversion therapy is a type of behavior therapy designed to encourage individuals to give up undesirable habits by causing them to associate the habit with an unpleasant effect. Systematic desensitization is a treatment for phobias in which the individual is trained to relax while being exposed to progressively more anxiety -provoking stimuli. Flooding is a form of desensitization that uses repeated exposure to highly distressing stimuli until the lack of reinforcement of the anxiety response causes its extinction.

Classical Conditioning in Everyday Life

Classical conditioning is used not only in therapeutic interventions, but in everyday life as well. Advertising executives, for example, are adept at applying the principles of associative learning. Think about the car commercials you have seen on television: many of them feature an attractive model. By associating the model with the car being advertised, you come to see the car as being desirable (Cialdini, 2008). You may be asking yourself, does this advertising technique actually work? According to Cialdini (2008), men who viewed a car commercial that included an attractive model later rated the car as being faster, more appealing, and better designed than did men who viewed an advertisement for the same car without the model.